There’s been an interesting back-and-forth about the end of Kutsuplus, which resonated with some of my experience of researching digital innovation for local government. Kutsuplus was an Uber style minibus service in Helsinki allowing citizens to summon a minibus from a smartphone, developed by Aalto university as part of the city’s commendable public transport aims. It has lost its funding.

Evgeny Morozov, long time critic of Silicon Valley companies, painted this event as part of a larger narrative: Californian tech behemoths wriggle out of paying their taxes, in turn the governments cannot afford to pay for public sector digital innovation projects. The result is that we’re stuck with a for-profit San Francisco monoculture.

Stian Westlake responded by pointing out that corporate tax take as a percentage of GDP hasn’t fallen, and suggests instead that the problem lies with the difficulty of public sector innovation more broadly.

The debate caught my eye – I’m part of a PhD program (The Creative Exchange) looking at ‘digital public space’ that very well could have attempted a project like Kutsuplus. The type of design research we do at The Creative Exchange has a history of democratising digital technologies going back to the 1970s. In particular, the project I’m working on – – is a web app to help local government understand what citizens say about local services on Twitter. I certainly relate to some of the issues mentioned in Stian Westlakes’ blog.

This post mulls some of my experience of public sector digital innovation, and the huge potential if we get it right. Even though this argument has been rehearsed infinitely, here’s why you’d want a public sector Uber… 

Does getting in an Uber, or staying at an AirBnB make any of the parties unsafe? Will these arrangements lead to workers becoming every more precarious, as they are no longer afforded official employment status? Will AirBnBs be used as brothels? Are Uber drivers lonely? Does AirBnB undermine public housing?

There’s plenty of articles about these issues, but most of the concerns can be placed in one of two categories. Firstly, the idea that these services bypass regulations agreed at a local level, and however imperfect that local democracy might be, that doesn’t seem right. Secondly, these Silicon Valley companies have stratospheric valuations – Uber is currently the most valuable private company in the world. Huge valuations are probably based on the idea that they will become monopolies in the long run, and will then start charging rates that are unfair, but highly lucrative for shareholders.

One answer is to build your own platform locally and make it function according to whatever the local rules are – for example ensuring taxi drivers receive minimum wage through the design of the software. That solves the monopoly problem too – any profits from the system can be redistributed to citizens.

Who could build such a thing? It’s hard for the public sector to turn to the creative energy of entrepreneurs, who are enticed by the prospect of billion dollar valuations rather than the more modest rewards of a well executed public infrastructure project. Universities are supposed to be centres of expertise, so perhaps they can help instead?

Kutsuplus seems to be an example of this model, a collaboration between Aalto University Computer Science and Engineering Department, the design Faculty and Helsinki’s transport authority. I’m not that familiar with the project – many of the articles I can find are in Finish – but the project’s demise made me reflect on my own experiences. 

University based projects are often supposed to serve an incredible diversity of goals. My work aims to provide a digital public consultation tool for community-focused institutions. While I’m doing that I’m supposed to be doing research of sufficient quality to warrant a PhD. At the same time, we are encouraged to have an eye on commercialisation. Through all of the this, leaders of the PhD program will be seeking to find evidence that our work has invigorated an innovation ecosystem. Alongside doing whatever it project we are doing, we also supposed to be documenting transferable knowledge – how could future projects be informed by what we are doing? It’s not that any of these things are a bad, it’s just a lot to think about – contrast all this with the laser focus of a startup.

I don’t know if this was a problem for Kutsuplus, but I notice one first papers on Goolge Scholar about Kutsuplus is the snappily title Intermediation For Eco-Innovations: Aalto Centre For Entrepreneurship In The Context Of A University Innovation Ecosystem, which looks like it’s not about Kutsuplus’ core goal of running minibuses.  Anecdotally, I’ve heard that Streetlife, a UK hyperlocal startup, refuses all requests for access by researchers, presumably to avoid loss of focus that might entail. 

I’ve found it’s difficult to keep up with communicating in two quite distinct ways. For academic audiences you need papers, workshops, posters, conferences, developing written communication in an academic style and carefully referencing a wider literature. Unsurprisingly, there is also a whole other language required for explaining my product to the public sector, with polished graphics, websites and succinct explanation. Communicating your message twice another burden for a project that seeks to do socially minded tech from within the university.

The commercial sector’s demand for developers has driven their wages upwards, meaning it’s hard for academic projects to afford experienced developers, or, even more lavish, software development agencies – yet this is probably exactly what’s needed. 

As a result, many research projects get so far with informal development work carried out at below market rate by friends or colleagues, or just by individual freelance developers, who inevitably move on or get distracted mid way through, leaving the investigator unable to complete. Even computer science departments might not have the relevant expertise. Looking at the publications from Kutsuplus, I notice a lot of them focus on the algorithmics for routing the buses, which is exactly the kind of problem that computer scientists love; delivering a beautiful mobile web experience, for example, isn’t so likely to be an academic computer scientists’ skill set – to build consumer facing tech you might have be able to afford to buy in that kind of expertise.

Despite all these difficulties the governments are going to have to work out how to deliver digital services, and think about how to regulate the private sector too.  The Economist poked fun at the idea of governments doing digital, but we can see from the success of UK’s Government Digital Services that it is possible for first class web services to be developed outside of Silicon Valley.

Creating monopolies and dealing with technologies that undermine existing legislation are classic issues for state intervention – look how fast the government moves to change the law when someone creates a new kind of recreational drug. Even if the state decides not intervene in the ‘sharing economy’, Kutsuplus shows us that publicly-funded transport can usefully import some of the ideas coming from California.

Academia can take on projects of any scale, physicists have built the largest machine in the world at CERN. Universities are responsible for all kinds of important software projects that we can’t imagine being without, like the operating system running your iPhone – there is no reason a university can’t deliver a smartphone based minibus service. At a recent D-CENT event there was lots of ambitious talk to that effect. On the one side, handing ownership of important infrastructure – and monopoly profits – to corporations thousands of miles away isn’t going to be politically acceptable in every context, on the other, but clearly, businesses like Uber are inspiring new approaches to public services.

Can digital communities do a better job of valuing and encouraging affective labour – the social and emotional work that makes collaboration possible? 

I went to the Future Makespaces in Redistributed Manufacturing Symposium at V&A yesterday, which triggered Baader-Meinhof phenomenon around the idea of ‘affective labour’. Looking through the event’s hashtag I saw this article linked (via @freerange_inc (via @hautepop)) – Why I Am Not A Maker.  The crux is that if we only value making and makers then we miss out a whole category of work; work that has a mostly emotional outcome, rather than a tangible physical output.

Further, the article suggests, emotional labour is disproportionately female, so women end up doing a category of work that is overlooked and undervalued. Computer programming is normally conceptualised as a kind of making, even though it does not produce a tangible artefact. This could simply be by association – making and coding are both widely conceptualised as male activities, so coding must be a kind of making.

Which is a weird synchronicity.  When I met David Rozas on Thursday to have a chat about his PhD he raised more or less exactly the same point. He’s at Surrey University’s sociology department looking at how open source software communities organise themselves. When people look at open source software communities, their research often assumes that the key work is technical, for example when they measure someone’s contribution by the number of lines of code they’ve written. (If you’re feeling nerdy David is using Activity Theory as a framework to describe non ‘community oriented’ measures of work – getting beyond the idea that work is characterised by writing code or documentation or creating any other digital commons.)

In his research on the Drupal community he’s come to suspect that ‘affective labour’ is critically important, alongside the technical work. Part of Drupal’s success may well be down to the culture of the community  –   ‘come for the code, stay for the community’ as their motto has it. Organising the (many) Drupal meetups that glue the community together and foster that culture is affective labour, and it could also be what’s made Drupal the most successful project in its category. Drupal has an extensive mentorship scheme that helps new members get involved – again, being a mentor is affective labour. Guess what? Etnographic research by some of David’s colleagues at University of Milano on Commons-Based Peer Production communities shows that these activities tend to be undertaken by women.

This is a topic that has been discussed a great deal, also under the banner of invisible labour. Questions about what kinds of labour official statistics – like GDP – capture are obviously important. There is also the conceptual notion that when we post to Facebook we are actually doing unpaid labour, that social media is intrinsically exploitative through this mechanism. What struck me at the symposium was perhaps a less global and more concrete idea: that the user interfaces of collaborative websites ought to highlight and facilitate members’ social contributions to the community.

Perhaps collaborative websites should start measuring affective labour and making it more visible. How many meetups did someone organise, how much mentoring have they done? How often do they resolve a dispute? Could that be presented in the same way that github uses stars?  For example, the Drupal community has started to discuss and analyse the ways in which these less visible activities can be tracked and recognised.  At the same time, efforts to value affective labour needs to avoid being reductionist – ultimately it’s not about measurement, but the experience of the community members.

Wevolver and 3D Hubs, both really interesting companies that I hadn’t heard about before, presented at the symposium. They both face similar problems of running communities of makers that need to welcome people to the world of 3D printing. Open Desk face similar issues. Thinking about the ways affective labour functions could certainly enhance their ability to build strong communities,  and working out what makes successful communities tick is only going to become more important as the web makes large scale and niche collaborative projects possible.

Both David Rozas (@drozas) and Sam Grayson (@samgraysonsam) helped me with this post.


Couple of notes from the Long Now Foundation health panel, both regarding how we aggregate and distribute knowledge.

Alison O’Mara-Eves (Senior Researcher in the Institute of Education at University College London) told us about the increasing difficulty of producing systematic reviews. Systematic reviews attempt to synthesise all the research on a particular topic into one view point: how much can you drink while pregnant, what interventions improve diabetes outcomes, etc.  These reviews, such as  venerable Cochrane reviews,  are struggling to sift through the increasing volumes research to decide what actionable advice to give doctors and the public. The problem is getting worse as the rate of medical research increases (although more research is obviously a good thing in itself).  We were told the research repository Web of Science indexes over 1 billion items of research. (I’m inclined to question what item is since there must be far less 100 million scientists in the world, and most of them must have contributed less than 10 items, however I take the point that there’s a lot of research.)

Alison sounded distinctly hesitant about using automation (such as machine learning) to assist in selecting papers to be included in a systemic review, as a way of making one of the steps of the process less burdensome. The problem is transparency: a systematic review ought to explain exactly what criteria they use to include papers, so that criteria can be interrogated by the public. That can be hard to do if an algorithm has played a part in the process. This problem is clearly going to have to be solved, research is no  use if we can’t sythesise it into an actionable form. And it seems tractable – we already have IBM Watson delivering medical diagnoses, apparently better than a doctor. In any case, I’m sure current systematic reviews of medical papers are carried out using various databases’s search function – who knows how that works or what malarkey those search algorithms might be up to in the background?

Mark Bale (Deputy Director in the Health Science and Bioethics Division at the Department of Health) was fascinating on the ethics of giving genetic data to the NHS, through their program the 100,000 genomes project. He described a case where a whole family who suffered with kidney complaints were treated due to one member having their genome sequenced, thus identifying a faulty genetic pathway. Good for that family, but potentially good for the NHS too – Mark described the possibility that by quickly identifying the root cause of a chronic, hard to diagnose ailment through genetic sequencing might save money too.

But – what of the ethics? What happens if your genome is on the database and subsequent research indicates that you may be vulnerable to a particular disease – do you want to know? Can I turn up at the doctors with my 23 and Me results? Can I take my data from the NHS and send it to 23 and Me to get their analysis? What happens if the NHS decides a particular treatment is unethical and I go abroad to a more permissive regulatory climes? What happens if I have a very rare disease and refuse to be sequenced, is that fair on the other sufferers? What happens if I refuse to have my rare disease sequenced, but then decide I’d like to benefit from treatments developed through other people’s contributions? I’ll stop now…

To me the part of the answer is that patients are going to have to acquire – at least to some extent – a technical understanding of the underlying process so they can make informed decisions. If that isn’t possible, perhaps smaller representative groups of patients who receive higher levels of training can play into decisions. One answer that’s very ethically questionable from my perspective is to take an extremely precautionary approach. This would be a terrible example of the status quo bias, many lives would be needlessly lost if we decided to overly cautious. There’s no “play it safe” option.

It’s interesting that with genomics the ethical issues are so immediate and visceral that they get properly considered, and have rightly become the key policy concern with this new technology. If only that happened for other new technologies…

The final question was whether humanity would still exist in 1000 years – much more in the spirit of the Long Now Foundation. Everyone agreed it would be, at least from a medical perspective, so don’t worry.




A recent LSE lecture by Stanford Profprofessor Walter Powell and supporting paper Interstitial Organizations as Conversational Bridges (Co-authored with Valeska Korff and Achim Oberg) uses text from NGOs webpages to suggest ‘a novel approach to evaluating the impact of non profit organisations’ … ‘combining social network and linguistic analysis’. The basis of the work is to analyse the diffusion of keywords through a network of NGO websites. It’s more exciting that the title makes it sound.

In the broadest terms my research is about digitally facilitated social coordination (hopefully I’ll find a snappier term), so this paper speaks exactly to the topic I’m looking at, as I’m going to attempt to describe here.

To articulate what I mean by social coordination it might be useful to rehearse how the predominant money-based method of social coordination works. A company that makes a good (popular) product will be able to sell that product for money, which they can use to make more of the product, a company with a less desirable product might go out of business when it fails to find people who want to purchase their output. So the flow of money encodes information about what people want –  what’s most socially beneficial –  and leads to socially optimum outcomes. I’ve described the idea with two companies, but the same idea applies to a whole economy. Obviously, practical concerns might stop it from working quite so neatly, but many economists and politicians think the market mechanism is very effective as a way of allocating resources. I’m calling this process of allocating resources social coordination.

But, non-profits don’t make a product that they can sell for money.  How, as a society, should we allocate money to them – how do we solve the social coordination problem for NGOs? My contention is that all of the digital data that has started to suffuse society encodes information about what people want, an alternative flow of information to the monetary one described above. The work described in the paper can be seen as exploring exactly this idea.

As Powell explains in his presentation, organisations like the Gates foundation, or silicon valley rich kids (whose equivalent in the UK are the private equity guys apparently) want to choose the most effective organisations to give their money to. If an NGO’s raison d’etre is to bore wells in rural Africa, then clearly a measurement of success would be how many people end up with clean water, or similar. But many NGOs set themselves the goal of shifting debate or influencing policy. In these less tangible cases, how do we measure how effective an organisation is?

This is where the research comes in. In effect, it measures the spread of ideas. Their initial phase is very similar my method with, only applied to websites, rather than Twitter. They took 36 websites they knew would be at the centre of the network they wanted to look at (a ‘seed’), and looked at which other websites the seed sites had hyperlinks to. That gave them 1394 websites to look at – the most highly linked – but they pruned  the non-specialist ones (New York Times etc), leaving them with 369.

Next, they grabbed all the text and PDFs on the 369 websites, and looked for the frequency of keywords. They had a list of 105 keywords divided into 3 categories – Science, Management, and Civil Society. So a website that frequently contains the words such as ‘participation’ and ‘justice’ would be strongly about civil society. A website that uses the words ‘outcomes’ and ‘performance’ a lot would be classified using a lot of management style language, while ‘data’ and ‘survey’ are examples of science words. Websites use all three languages are ‘in the middle’.

We now have data about which sites link to which others, and what category they fit in measured by keywords. The authors use the data to describe an ‘interstitial’ group of NGO websites, which use the key words from all three categories equally,  all link to each other a lot and also link out to sites that are strongly classified as science, civil society or management. By contrasts the strongly classified NGOs rarely had hyperlinks between the categories.

So this interstitial group of NGOs might be highly influential and driving conversation, we know that bridging between two parts of a network is a powerful position to be in because you can broker information between those parts. However, it could also be the case that the interstitial group has no agency, and is being driven by peripheral civil society, science and management websites who generate the ideas.

What we really need is data over time, so we can see how the language spreads, which is exactly what the authors conclude. This would tell us in which direction the keywords diffuse,  allowing us to to see who is best promulgating their ideas, and help the philanthropists choose where to send their cash.

This is exactly what the authors conclude, and presumably should be fairly easy to do.

The fun bit is thinking about what you could do with this type of data. Academics are constantly under pressure to have impact, usually measured by publishing papers in high profile journals. Perhaps impact could instead be measured by looking at how ideas spread around a network. How many other researchers adopt your terminology, how often does it appear in papers, blogs, etc?

Culture is often thought to be undervalued by the market, could you allocate resource by looking at which cultural events have the most impact on social media. This would akin to the stated preference methods that have been used in cultural economics. Who’s doing better, the V&A or the British Museum? Analyse Twitter sentiment and allocate the funding accordingly. (Obviously you might think the goal of cultural institutions is not be liked but to be good.)

It’s also very reminiscent of the work I’ve done looking at think tanks.

All these ideas are subject to Goodhart’s law, (similar to the Lucas Critique)  :

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Just as the academic imperative to publish has lead to junk journals and insubstantial papers, measuring the spread of language would incentivise NGOs to game the system. And of course this type of analysis does nothing to measure the quality of the underlying ideas. However, it does allow a way to measure the effectiveness non-market activity, and my feeling is that culturally governments (many philanthropists too) are hypnotised by the market-oriented measurement of value. The data driven measurements described above are a concrete way to justify non-market expenditures.





Last week I was talking to Nimrod Vardi from @arebyte gallery about the possibilities of an art exhibition organised using an open source approach. That conversation made me realise there are lots of interesting questions about using open-source outside of software. I should note that open source is strictly about the terms under which computer code is distributed, but here I take here to mean the collaborative processes that allow many people to write code together.

Some open source software projects provide essential tools to the whole of humanity at no cost by combining the work of thousands of individuals – so not bad thing to emulate. Another less obvious feature of the open source model of collaboration is how well defined it is. If someone says ‘cooperative’, what does that mean exactly? It could encompass all kinds of things. Assuming you are familiar with it, open source immediately imports a relatively well defined set of processes and social norms.

But how applicable is it to the arts, or local government, two areas where I’ve heard it talked about a lot? Or, for that matter, anything else that isn’t software?

So let’s take that question and examine it: how would you organise many volunteers to make an exhibition happen? Can you answer the question with open source?

Aside: I worked on a BBC documentary called The Virtual Revolution, which billed itself as the first open source documentary. (We all hated the name by the way.) Here is an anecdote the person who commissioned it told us: 

TV Commissioner: Will you support us in making this documentary about the virtual revolution, with interviews and so on?

Tim Berners-Lee: Yes, as long as the documentary is open source.

TV Commissioner: Of course it’s going to be open source, I can’t believe you even asked. I have open source with my breakfast. Tim, it’s going to be great working with you.

Tim BL: Lovely! [Tim BL leaves the room]

TV Commissioner: Can somebody tell me what open source is?

There is no literal way a TV program can be open source, it has no source code. But it can be include its potential audience in the decisions. Even this was incredibly difficult for TV producers, who couldn’t release control – and with good reason, a documentary is an aesthetic product that needs to have a consistent voice, and consultation is insanely labour intensive anyway. Anyway. 

How can non-software use open source ideas?

I asked “can you organise collaborative non-software projects along the same lines as open source software projects?” on Twitter, and @adamamyl, @amcewen and @floppy came back with some interesting examples, included below. 

Even if you’re not writing software, if you are doing something where the output is text then you really can follow an open source model. You can use many of the tools and you can use the licences (which are the legal mechanisms for sharing your software and protecting yourself). That’s exactly what @floppy has done, using Github to collectively write a manifesto for his campaign to become MP for Horsham (Github is a website that manages code that multiple programmers are working on at the same time, powered by a system called Git [I know], which is itself open source). In some ways this is a brilliant shortcut, getting all of Github’s fantastic tools to help you write collectively. However, for non-coders there is a high barrier to entry, the Git workflow isn’t that intuitive. In fact I’d describe it as hostile.  

Alternatively, even if you are working on something non-textual, you can still use Github’s issue tracking (which is really designed for tracking bugs in code). @frabcus is using Github issues to track renovating a house, and @amcewen pointed out that @DoESLiverpool is using Github to track issues with… the city of Liverpool.

Again, if you are familiar with Github then it has a lot of useful features, if you aren’t then it’s probably going to make your head explode. In the second cases – renovating the house and Liverpool in its entirety – there isn’t any kind of open source output, they just borrow the tooling.

When people talk about open source I don’t think they (just) want to use the licences or to use Github – they want the scale of participation and the impact that open source has achieved. They want to ca capture the motive force behind Linux and friends, bottle it, and use it. And they want that well defined collaborative process I mentioned before.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there is anything about open source models that can just be read across to increase scale or impact of collaboration outside of software. There are intrinsic (and obvious) ways in which software is just logistically suited to collaboration:

  • The goal is to create text (computer code), which can easily be shared over the web allowing a geographically dispersed community to work on it. How could you do this for an exhibition? Sure you can share documents, but when it comes to an install…
  • If your code really solves a problem then it could end up with thousands or millions of people using it, which is very motivating. This is not the case for many non-software projects.
  • Contributions are very defined, having even a small amount of code in a prominent OS project confers a lot of prestige. Having participated in group decisions about an exhibition might be less compelling and clear cut.
  • Software developers collaboratively write software that makes collaborative coding easier, which makes it easier for them to collaborate… it’s a virtuous circle. Git, mentioned before, was written by the developers of Linux as a tool to help them track who wrote which bit of code, now it’s a brilliant tool that huge numbers of developers use.

So you probably can’t really learn a lot from open source processes when it comes to collaboration on projects that are fundamentally about information. Wikipieda, Open Street Map, Linux: yes. Curating a gallery space: probably not. Instead perhaps you have to look to the experience of coops, maker spaces, or other acts of voluntary cooperation where information isn’t the product.

In fact, as I’ve written before, the vague notion that your collaboration should somehow echo open source politics can be quite damaging.

Except. If you can find a some part of the collaborative process that needs a software solution, then perhaps you can make that into an open source software project. And, in creating that collaborative software, perhaps you can embody processes and social norms, just like Github does for open source. Which is what I’m trying to do with my PhD, where the underlying collaborative practise is local government consultation.

Update: @Tim4Shaw has just mentioned open source hardware, which definitely deserves a mention here and is a bit of a glaring omission. Sometimes it’s about hardware that runs only open source firmware, sometimes it’s about publishing files that would allow you to 3D print / laser cut parts. Tim mentioned @MeeBlip, other notable examples include the Novena ‘laptop’ and Wikihouse. All of them represent a blurring of the physical / digital.



Martin Dittus, so far as I know, is the originator of the handy term ‘facilitators paradox’ – the idea that anyone organising a process of collective decision making is always exercising a type of power over participants, even if their goal is the exact opposite: to be egalitarian and democratic.

This is obviously a concern since participatory design is so often couched in terms of it’s ability to transfer power to participants [1]. I’ve come to this problem from an usual angle, since my focus is not participatory design, but designing participatory systems – in particular, mining Twitter for data that can help local governments respond to their citizen’s needs. Participatory design became relevant for me because its widely believe that participatory systems have to be designed with the community they serve to be effective and to be legitimate.

Political science, unsurprisingly, has lots to say about systems of participation, and this post is intended to layout three attempts to deal with the ‘facilitators paradox’ from within that discipline.  I will also be using political theorist Steven Lukes’ conception of power to set up the problem.

In any participatory process there’s always a background set of decisions which the facilitator will unavoidably have taken, trying not to do so leads to an infinite regress. Imagine designing a playground through a participatory process, we might have a vote to decide what colour to paint the fence. But who decides the choices of colour? What about other finishes? Who gets to vote, who decides the criteria for a legitimate community member? Who chooses what we vote on, or the system by which the votes are counted? Of course, you could discuss any one of these issues, but then who decides how to organise that discussion?  

The answer is clear – the only way for the facilitator to truly exercise no power over the community is to never leave their desk and never contact that community. Equally clearly, we should not abandon all ideas of participation, a course of action that is certain to disempower participants: the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Lukes addresses exactly these issues [2]. He contends that power has three dimensions, as highlighted in the following three cases:

  1. Cases where “key political decisions in which the preferences of the hypothetical ruling elite run counter to any other group” (Quoting Dahl) [3]
  2. Cases where “A devotes his energies to creating or reinforcing social and political values and institutional practises that limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous to A” (Quoting Bachrach and Baratz) [4]
  3. “A person may exercise power over B … by influencing, shaping or determining his very wants”  (Lukes himself)


Case 1: Opinions actively suppressed

This scenario could manifest itself in many subtle ways, but a caricature example might be that of a king who imposes very high taxes on his subjects, to which they strongly, publicly object but about which they can do nothing. We have clear empirical evidence that the king is acting against the interests of the people, and their opinions have never been considered. In some sense the very existence of a participatory design process mitigates against this kind of power, at least within the scope of the project. Any process that can at all be referred to as participatory is the opposite of actively ignoring collective will.


Case 2: Opinions covertly excluded from discussion

Lukes gives the real world example of two American towns, one of which votes for clean air laws to improve the environment. In another, similar town where there is a steel plant, the same laws are never passed. This is not because of Case 1 style power, the management of the steel plant do not ignore the clearly expressed views of the local people. Instead, they prevent the passage of clean air laws by preventing them for coming up for discussion or voting. Even though there is a system to pass such laws, the steel plant uses its power in the background to further its own interests. Again, here we can see empirical evidence of this type of power, for example in the comparison between the two towns.

In participatory design, we might see this kind of power as being exercised when the scope of the project is set to exclude some important issue. In the example of the designing a playground, we could imagine that it is replacing an older, much loved park that is going to be redeveloped. If the key sentiment the community wishes to express is that it wants to prevent the closure of the old park then there will be questions about the value of a participatory process that prevents this outcome.

Even within the scope of a participatory project we can imagine this kind of power at play. If the facilitator chooses what subjects are discussed they are necessarily steering the way decisions go.


Case 3: Voting against your own interests

This is the major philosophical threat to any collective decision making process, a kind of insidious, unobservable power. Lukes gives the example of an inheritance tax once considered in the United States, christened the “Death Tax” by opponents. Many people believed, incorrectly, that they would be subject to the tax and so the proposal became very unpopular. In fact it was only to be imposed on the extremely rich, and the money gathered through it would have been widely distributed throughout society. In this example it’s suggested we can see a ‘ruling elite’ influencing perceptions using emotive language so that many people expressed opinions which are against their own interests. In this case a minority interest wins despite a ‘free’ debate on the topic.

While we might all accept this type of power is widely exercised it’s on a dangerous empirical footing. How do we know that the proposed inheritance tax was really against the best interests of the majority? Perhaps many people felt taxing inheritance represents a moral issue that overrode their own desire for financial gain. Who are we to decide? If we decide that it’s acceptable to ignore people’s expressed opinions ‘in their best interest’ isn’t that a kind of dictatorship?

We could term this type of power ‘preference shaping’. The question is not so much whether preference shaping takes place, it clearly does. As Przeworski [5] says:

In a society in which interests are in conflict, the fact that various economic agents spend money to persuade others constitutes prima facie evidence that someone is irrational. Either those who spend money to communicate are throwing it away or these costly messages persuade others to hold beliefs that are not in their best interest.

The question is rather how to ‘unshape’ preferences, or access ‘true’ preferences.


Attempts to ensure equality across all three dimensions of power

Cases 1 and 2 concern the issue of how to collect together individuals preferences in a legitimate and effective way. There is a large literature on the difficulties involved in that process which I won’t go into here: much of it concerns voting systems and participatory design rarely hinges on voting. Cases 1 and 2 also seem to imply some kind of self-serving intent on the part of the facilitator, which we can at least hope is not so much of a problem in small scale participatory design. The third case, however, must often be present in PD. It’s frequently the essence of PD projects that experts in some particular field are working with non-experts – this seems almost by necessity to represent a power dynamic.


Attempt 1: Statistically adjusting for non-expertness 

In his book The Myth of the Rational Voter [6] Bryan Caplan attempts – and I realise that his approach will seem dubious to many people – to calculate how opinions would change if members of the public were trained as economists. To do this he uses data from a survey (the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy) that solicits opinions from economists and non-economists on a range of economic issues . Unsurprisingly, the two groups give systematically different answers. This in itself is notable: many economists are extremely reluctant to countenance the idea of the third dimension of power. Economics is often conceptualised as finding the optimal way to satisfy people’s preferences, if preferences are susceptible to shaping then they might seem like an unreliable foundation on which to build.

A common defence is that although many people may have random variations in their preferences, in large numbers these random variations will cancel out. Caplan demonstrates that preferences are not (just) subject to random noise, but are systemically different between experts and non-experts.

That might be because the economists are wiser, but it could also be because economists are disproportionately male, rich or white. Fortunately, respondents in the survey also provided a wide variety detailed demographic information, so he is able to use statistical regression to remove these effects, in attempt to discover what an average person would think about issues of economic policy, if they benefited from a PhD in economics.

In this way, he is able to simulate the view of what he calls the ‘enlightened public’. Using the following scoring system, they were asked how much various factors hindered the economy:

0 – no reason at all

1 – minor reason

2- major reason

For example, subjects responded to the question “Foreign aid spending is too high”. The public at large gave this proposition an average score of 1.4 (strong agreement) while economists gave it a score of 0.1 (strong disagreement). The simulated enlightened public gave it a score of 0.3 (strong disagreement). This, Caplan asserts, indicates that all most all of the widespread antipathy towards foreign aid is connected with a lack of information. Elsewhere in the book Caplan cites a statistic that indicates 41% of Americans believe foreign aid is one of the two most significant national budget expenditures, in fact it represents only 1.2% of the budget. It seems likely that the opinion of the non-expert public is mostly misinformed, that is, that their preferences are shaped by a lack of information.

Through this method, which he repeats for a number of other questions, Caplan attempts to discover what an informed public would think, that is, a public free from the exercise of the third dimension of power over them.

One serious problem with Caplan faces is that he cannot control for the variable “kind of person who wants to become an economist”, while another is that he is extremely lucky in finding such useful dataset in the SAEE survey.


Attempt 2: Taking account of cognitive biases 

In Sunstein’s Health-Health Tradeoffs [7] he considers difficult policy decisions around risk, and asks how those decisions could be made more sensitive to the way citizens actually perceive risk. He provides some examples of the type of tradeoffs he is considering:

Fuel economy standards, designed partly to reduce environmental risks, may make automobiles less safe, and in that way increase risks to life and health. Regulations designed to control the spread of AIDS and hepatitis among health care providers may increase the costs of health care, and thus make health care less widely available, and thus cost lives. If government bans the manufacture and use of asbestos, it may lead companies to use more dangerous substitutes.

Normally, when policy makers consider these types of risks they assume that one type of fatality is exactly the same as any other – being hit by a bus is the same as a heart attack. Sunstein compares this approach with data from Viscusi’s Book Fatal Tradeoffs [8]. Viscusi uses a well attested method of contingent valuation [9] to discover how people actually think about risk. Participants are asked to state how much they think it would be appropriate to spend to prevent certain kinds of fatalities. For example on average preventing a single ‘unforeseen instant death’ is given an average value of $2 million, while preventing a death from lung cancer is valued at $4 million.  Sunstein derives some patterns from these statistics, for example noting that risks arising from man-made sources are ranked as warranting higher levels of preventative expenditure compared with naturally occurring risks.

Sunstein suggests ‘Economic approaches promise to avoid some of the problems of expert valuations.’ This work has interesting symmetrical relationship to Nudge, a book he later co-authored with Richard Thaler [10]. In Nudge the authors advocate that policy makers should consider the ‘non-rational’ behaviour of those subject to a particular policy – a detail of implementation of policy. In Sunstien’s Health-Health trade-offs he instead argues for the inclusion of similar complex behaviours in the policy objectives themselves.


Attempt 3: Deliberative polling – structured access to experts

Deliberation is thought to offer an important way both of avoiding preference shaping and also of avoiding various issues with counting votes, with continental and analytic philosophers arriving a roughly similar conclusions:

… arguments advanced by Habermas and Rawls do seem to have a common core: political choice, to be legitimate, must be the outcome of of deliberation about ends among free, equal and rational agents. [11]

Fishkin has a rather neat definition of deliberative polling:

Ordinary polls seek to gauge the opinions people actually hold, Deliberative Polls to gauge the opinions they would hold if they knew and thought more.The design provides random samples with information and gives them the opportunity of discussing
the issues with one another and questioning policy experts about them.

Again, the idea is to access ‘unshaped’ preferences lurking behind superficial responses.  Among the benefits of deliberation are the possibilities of ‘revealing private information’ and ‘lessening or overcoming bounded rationality’ [12]. So can we see it in effect empirically?

Yes. For example, in Disaggregating Deliberation’s Effects:An Experiment within a Deliberative Polling [13], Fishkin is able to demonstrate exactly the effects we might expect from access to expert information. Over a weekend, a representative sample of residents in New Haven, Connecticut were split into groups and given opportunities to hear expert testament and debate. They discussed two issues, the highly controversial expansion of a local airport, and a much less contested issue surrounding what if any sharing there should be of property-tax revenues from new commercial development.

Over a weekend each group is presented with evidence about the likely effects of various policies by a panel of experts. In plenary sessions the group are able to put questions to the experts, and there is time for discussions within, but not between, the groups.

Surveys administered before and after indicate that the groups all shift their views over the course of the weekend, seeming to support the hypothesis that participants true preferences can only come to the fore through the provision of more information and space for discussion. Larger changes were observed for the less contested tax-sharing issue, compared with the controversial airport expansion. The authors attribute this to the fact that many participants already had some information about the airport through coverage in local newspapers.

In Fishkin’s book [14] on deliberative polling, he goes on to discuss a number of other similar projects, and highlights two possible effects. Firstly, he looks at polarisation and groupthink, where people discussing a topic will naturally tend to more and more extreme positions. This theory is attributed to Cass Sunstein (mentioned previously). Fishkin uses statistical evidence from his research to demonstrate that this is not a powerful or widespread effect.

More relevant to participatory design, Fishkin looks at what he terms ‘domination’, where the privileged are able to make their voices louder than others. When participants selected for a participative democracy project, they are selected so that they are representative of the underlying community. But, what if attendance is not enough:

Some people, even if formally included, may not have their voices, if they speak at all, taken seriously. They may give off cues that indicate they are not well informed or not worth listening to.

Domination, which I would suggest is an example of the second dimension of power, will show up empirically in participatory democracy. In before and after surveys, it ought to be possible to see views shifting to those of the ‘privileged’ – those with more money, higher social status etc if domination is occurring. This is not widely evident: in Fishkin’s project consulting a population about airport expansion, there was no evidence of views being systematically shifted in ways that might be indicative of domination.

Alice Siu’s [15] research looked at five deliberative polls, breaking down the number of words spoken by participants down into demographic categories. Demographics that might be expected to exhibit domination, such as educated white males, did not have higher word counts than others – which might tend to indicate that domination did not take place.



Firstly, Lukes’ dimensions of power may be a useful framework for participatory designers seeking to reduce the impact of the ‘facilitators paradox’ and think about the practice more generally. I’m not aware of it’s use in design, however it’s widely discussed across participatory and deliberative politics, as well as in projects in developing countries [16].

Secondly, the work across political science indicates several ways in which participants preferences might be ‘shaped’ by the third dimension of power – either through lack of expertise, cognitive bias, or lack of information.

Thirdly, perhaps the techniques for empirically observing the various dimensions of power discussed above could be applied to benchmark various approaches to participatory design. In design features such as domination and polarisation should be observable through the same methods.

Finally, the very close, and recursive similarity between the agendas of deliberative democracy and participatory design are something that might bear further examination.

[1] Kensing, Finn, and Jeanette Blomberg. “Participatory design: Issues and concerns.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 7.3-4 (1998): 167-185.

[2] Lukes, Steven. Power: A radical view. Vol. 1. Macmillan: London, 1974.

[3] Dahl, Robert A. “The concept of power.” Behavioral science 2.3 (1957): 201-215.

[4] Bachrach, Peter, and Morton S. Baratz. “Two faces of power.” American political science review 56.04 (1962): 947-952.

[5] Elster, Jon. Deliberative democracy. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Przeworski chapter.

[6] Caplan, Bryan. The myth of the rational voter: Why democracies choose bad policies. Princeton University Press, 2011.

[7] Sunstein, Cass R. “Health-health tradeoffs.” The University of Chicago Law Review (1996): 1533-1571.

[8] Viscusi, W. Kip. Fatal tradeoffs. Oxford University Press, 1992.

[9] “Report of the NOAA panel on contingent valuation.” (1993): 4601-4614.

[10] Leonard, Thomas C. “Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness.” Constitutional Political Economy 19.4 (2008): 356-360.

[11] Elster, Jon. Deliberative democracy. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Introduction.

[12] Elster, Jon. Deliberative democracy. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Fearon chapter.

[13] Farrar, Cynthia, et al. “Disaggregating deliberation’s effects: An experiment within a deliberative poll.” British Journal of Political Science 40.02 (2010): 333-347.

[14] Fishkin, James. When the people speak: Deliberative democracy and public consultation. Oxford University Press, 2009.

[15] Siu, Alice. Look who’s talking: Examining social influence, opinion change, and argument quality in deliberation. ProQuest, 2009.

[16] Gaventa, John. “Finding the spaces for change: a power analysis.” IDS bulletin37.6 (2006): 23.

Of all the beautiful things about Venice, one thing that makes the city feel so special is the way the you can see all the workings of a state packed onto a small island: the Doge’s palace, the churches, the courts, the military at the Arsenale. It’s easy to imagine how all these organs formed the body politic of historic venice – and to imagine yourself there.

As you fly in to Marco Polo airport you get the SimCity isometric projection of the city through the window, the same birds-eye institutional perspective I took from the Creative Time Summit. As someone studying in a design institution and from a coding background it was a refreshing new horizon. As someone thinking about notions of  ‘social economy’ as a way for institutions to understand how they fit into society, the politics of the Summit, and the Biennale as a whole were a revitalising experience.

Joshua Wong of Hong Kong's umbrella protest - inspiring personal bravery
Joshua Wong of Hong Kong’s umbrella protest – inspiring personal bravery

So, what button do you click on the SimCity toolbar to get more artists, or to convert your sims into activists? As your cursor hovers over the gallery building tool, should you worry about your sims staging a coup d’etat? Or do you click the museum button?

As Paul Ramirez Jonas (I hope – forgot to write who was speaking in my notes) reminded us, the first public museum was the Louvre, and it was the direct result of the liquidation of another institutional power, the monarchy. By repurposing the royal palace as an egalitarian educational space a message was being sent about the post-revolutionary power structure.

Tina Shirwell, director of the International Academy of Art in Palestine, told us that during the Israeli occupation the only subjects that were not permitted at university were art and agriculture.

Both stories capture something about how the rest of the institutional apparatus relates to the arts. So what does it mean when we are sitting in a the Arsenale, the fortress at the centre of ancient Venice’s military pre-eminence, and it’s been converted to conference centre for a summit about art activism?

The first time I realised that a society’s structure isn’t as unambiguous as Venice’s brick and mortar was reading Anthony Sampson’s Who Run’s This Place? A book he published in various guises six times between 1962 and 2004 (the year of his death) detailing the shifting power centres in the UK. He identifies over 30 ‘moving parts’ in the UK’s org chart. Discussing the change in the UK over that time he says:

No one now talks about the ruling class. The dukes and earls have been sent packing from the House of Lords…. The garden of Buckingham Palace is a venue for pop groups” (Fascinating review by David Lammy here).

Sampson paints a complex, interconnected, institutional picture of power, before I read it I honestly just thought of the Prime Minister at the top of some kind well-ordered tree structure.

Scene set: it’s about institutions and power, and the way they are morphing, melting and warping at an unprecedented rate. Decoupling from their architectural manifestations and becoming more opaque.

Don’t believe me? At the Biennale, which hosted the CT Summit, the artist Isaac Julien made sponsored installation for Rolls-Royce while also organising a reading of the whole of Marx’s Das Kapital. Many reviews of the Biennale mentions it, but like Kissinger winning the Nobel peace prize, it’s kind of beyond comment. Very maskirovka, an enacted oxymoron.

As Shannon Jackson described it, the Biennale itself is “a quasi cultural-diplomatic event”. You can’t help but feel queasy in the Russian pavilion; looking round the lifeless UAE exhibit you know instinctively that you’re looking at the crystallised residue of a repressive society. Some countries are excluded, others – inevitably the old colonial powers – get lavish well positioned pavilions. On the other hand, Im Heung-soon‘s videos about factory conditions in South East Asia are profoundly, painfully moving: the Biennial is not politically impotent.

Not an official part of the Summit, Public Studio & Adrian Blackwell organised a choir of migrant workers to sing the Italian national anthem. It was extremely uncomfortable, which I presume was the goal.
Not an official part of the Summit, Public Studio & Adrian Blackwell organised a choir of migrant workers to sing the Italian national anthem. It was extremely uncomfortable, which I presume was the goal.

The Creative Time program was loaded with reassuring morality. So many people working on incredible, brave, projects – cookery schools in Palestine, or helping the inhabitants of disappearing Alaskan islands. Chipping away at injustices in so many diverse contexts. So where does the art community, particularly the activist art community represented at the CT Summit, belong in the global org chart, if such a thing be imagined?

A common phrases I heard was ‘neoliberal’, as a way to designate the other, the oppositional institutional forces. Corporations and the governments in their pocket. At the same time, as Marco Baravalle said “art is the laboratory of governmentality” where artists are “well trained locals for hire” who can precipitate action and galvanise communities. Obviously attendant to that is an ethical conundrum, as Paolo Rosso said there is a danger of “using public sphere to be accepted by the art world”, generating a corrupt politics, in his memorable phrase “A fake participation of cultural violence”.

On this I think it’s impossible to disagree: the dominant creed of those in power is a uniform commitment to almost unrestricted capitalism. Which brings me to the subtitle of the summit: The Curriculum. If the value of art is it’s measurable benefit to society, as we were told Plato thought, then the art community gets driven to produce evidence of its benefit. Under neoliberalism that plays out as: how does it make money?

In the UK, the Arts Council has incentivised artist to be inclusive of minorities and accessible to the disadvantaged, admirable goals. But in instrumentalising artist’s practises lives a danger. Does this policy unwittingly co-opt art into social policy, perhaps even as substitute for more material redistributive measures?

Another benefit to society that arts institutions have identified is eduction, the topic of the conference. Government support for arts eduction has eroded in the wake of the financial crisis – in very great part because it can’t articulate how it makes money. It’s a bizarre situation: the crisis ought to have weaken the intellectual grip of neoliberalism, instead it intensified its implementation. As a result those not able to access formal arts institutions are taking a do it yourself approach. This adds another layer to the entwined roles of audience, practitioner and student which is especially present when a project is about inclusive or participatory activism.

Antonio Negri spurred a thought with his assertion that “The more labour is artistic, the more free we are”. In this he too turns to more economic language, something that – as you may have guessed by now – I’m extremely interested in. When I think about artistic institutions in terms of supply and demand I realise that they’re similar to craft beer – bear with me on this. While I’ve been living in East London multiple small scale brewers have opened. The classic analysis would be that there was a suddenly increased demand for niche, gourmet beer. But obviously this is not the case, what really happened was there was that the romantic idea of running a brewery attracted suppliers. They create an ecology which makes starting a brewery easier, and demonstrate that it’s possible. The suppliers then create a market for their beer – in part by implying the ethical superiority of small scale production in their adverts. Brewing is attractive because it offers freedom through creative endeavour. Who doesn’t like beer? The supply and demand relationship runs backwards.

If all our jobs are being taken by robots, perhaps in the future all we’ll have to do is pass the time doing creative pseudo labour. (Tangential Star Trek link that I think captures this thought.)

Whether you buy into that digression or not, what I’ve noticed the most is the linguistic schism between the ‘neoliberal’ institutions and the culture of the conference. It was neatly captured by a question to Negri “What comes first, ontologically, antagonism or co-operation?” – meaning, what comes first, market or cooperation?

But actually, the market can be seen as the continuation of cooperation by other means — though that might be the wrong turn of phrase. In my work I’ve been thinking about the idea of social economies, which has forced me to reason through cooperation and competition. I subsume both under the category of ‘collective action’ – competition and competition aren’t opposites, they’re actually quite arbitrarily assigned to various acts.

A football game is clearly a competition, in the sense that one side wins, but it’s also cooperative in the sense that both sides have to agree to turn up to the field at the same time and to play by the rules. A soviet-style command economy is cooperative, but it’s also illiberal, cruel and stupid. Scientists may simultaneously compete and cooperate to discover a vaccine. Corporations regularly agree to cooperate with one another.

There’s a useful body of work attempting to to unpick cooperation, competition and collective action – John Searle and Wilfred Sellars are perhaps the most famous thinkers to have a go.

Whatever your political take on neoliberalism, it’s useful to understand how it understands itself – as the defender of the exquisite structures of “market cooperation” that orchestrate the material abundance around us. It also sees itself as the only proven route to wealth for countries that are currently impoverished.

Economics has something else to say about power structures. Elinor Ostrom, who I think deserves a much higher profile, did convincing research demonstrating that diverse groups are considerable more effective at problem solving. At the structural scale, along with her husband, she developed the idea of polycentrism – that societies ought to vest power in multiple organisations with different perspectives. Her Nobel Prize was for her work on commons (Governing the Commons as PDF), another area where she ties into the art-activism of Creative Time.

Given that government and policy is a virtual monoculture of neoliberalism, what I took from the conference was the necessity of reinstating multiplicity of approaches to social issues — polycentrism — including art activism.

As Mariam Ghani, in her Skype discussion with Ashraf Ghani (the president of Afghanistan) mentioned – the key is language. Antonio Negri gives absolute primacy to language in his theoretical framework too.

Language is important to achieving polycentrism obviously because the different power centres need to be able to talk to each other. But especially there needs to be a discourse with neoliberalism, or perhaps the broader economic language in which it’s couched, since that’s the only way to integrate it into a plurality – which is why I’m so interested in Ostrom’s work.I also think the tech realm – where there is much excitement about developments around crypto currencies and smart cities – is also a linguistic isolate which needs a bridge building.

Language is important in the sense of sharing information across national borders. Earlier on I mentioned the craft beer explosion in London, but exactly parallel craft beer phenomena has happen across South Korea, Australia, the US simultaneously – probably many other places. Culture ignores borders more than ever before, which is perhaps another reason why the national pavilions of the Biennale seem so retrograde.

There is a huge opportunity to creep around the sluggish politics of individual nation states and shortcut to more vibrant political alternatives – at least to demonstrate the possibilities.

CT Summit was nothing if not optimistic, I heard two speakers equate art with optimism – even as we discussed some fairly intractable problems. As we bounced down Via Garibaldi with a brass band blasting Rage Against the Machine, the optimism was infectious and energising. Returning to UK to discover it genuinely politically energised by the possibility of left winger Jeremy Corbyn about to become leader of the opposition – well, you never know what’s round the corner…

Won't do what they us.
Won’t do what they told us.

In JG Ballard’s novel Cocaine Nights, residents of a utopian Spanish retirement resort commit terrible crimes against one another. They are driven to crime because they need more discomfort. Ballard’s message is that humans will become pathological in utopia. We need a problem, because if there are no problems, how will tomorrow be better than today?

David Graeber, in his book Fragments of Anarchist Anthropology, says “There would appear to be no society which does not see human life as fundamentally a problem”. He might not be quite right, as former missionary Daniel Everett discovered when he went to the Amazon and met a strange tribe. The Piraha people, who believe themselves to be the happiest in the world (that’s what the name Piraha means in the the Piraha language), have no past or future tense in their language. They are the happiest people in the world because they cannot ask, how will tomorrow be better than today?

The quest for a better tomorrow is a much studied phenomena. John Gray concludes that we are doomed to repeat the utopian fantasies of the past, constantly seeking for a better tomorrow without realising that we simply recapitulate the same old problems in new ways. As he points out, utopian regimes of the 20th century, Marxist, Leninist, etc, only succeeded in making tomorrow worse than today.

Gray contends that the reason Western governments ban drugs is because they offer the wrong way of making tomorrow better than today, a way that doesn’t involve ever increasing material consumption. Governments require money-based redemption to keep the economy growing: more GDP to make tomorrow better than today.

I bring up the war on drugs because it seemed like a immovable feature of the landscape when Gray wrote about it in 2003. Now the war on drugs seems to be abating,  many states in the US are moving to legalise cannabis and countries across Europe are moving in the same direction. Does that hint at a shift in the collective consciousness, a mutation in the imagined better-tomorrow?  Economic thought feels like it’s turning a corner away from money redemption. Millennials are primarily civically minded, apparently. Philosophy offers career advice for ‘doing good better‘. Even a conservative government is partial to the rhetoric of “measuring what matters“.

There is another kind of redemption, which the USA is pioneering; a global militarism where a spectral adversary has to be defeated, a la George Orwell. That’s why the US can’t countenance gun control. As Obama said in an accidental moment of candour, in small town America, where money-redemption seems impossible, they instead “cling to guns and religion”. A watered-down version of nation-state kill-or-be-killed can be seen in the Tories “global race” election rhetoric.  We can only hope that this kind of zero-sum better-tomorrow goes away.

Robin Archer of the LSE gave a nice quote at a recent talk: “what a dismal time it has been for those of us on the left… because the unusual plastic state of the public mind which followed the global financial crisis feels like it’s starting to congeal and harden into something quite unsympathetic”. But perhaps a Tory victory is ripple on the surface of a Kondratiev-wave scale reorientation of the global outlook. Political radicalism consequent to the financial crisis didn’t really touch Britain, where the average voter has remained relatively unaffected compared to the devastation in peripheral eurozone countries.

But there is a global, almost post national chattering class, bound together by the web, which could emerge as a new force in politics. Evgeny Morozov thinks they too will be beholden to neoliberal money-redemption, while Cory Doctorow is more of an optimist.

Meanwhile, the diminishing marginal utility of wealth means that increasing GDP might not satisfy us forever, and in any case perhaps economic growth has gone for the foreseeable. Economics professor Ed Glaeser says “the introduction of happiness into economics by Richard Layard and others stops the economists primal sin, which is acting as if money is the be all and end all, which is equivalently foolish as the view that any one thing is the be all and end all.”

Time for a new multidimensional answer to how tomorrow will be better than today? I hope so.





There were so many ways for Art Hackathon to go wrong, but more ways for it to go right than I realised too. Failure seemed so vivid in my mind’s eye, non-failure seemed so unlikely – at each step I couldn’t believe it all worked out.

Having vaguely committed to help Theo, Tom and Catherine put on a hackday about creativity and hardware (art?) I went on holiday for two weeks. I came back and discovered that tickets were going to be £20, and assumed this would be catastrophic or even fatal, but it wasn’t, and tickets sold. In fact they sold out. I was completely wrong to assume they had to be free, that was win number one.

Free because I knew we were going to have to promote it a lot, and as soon as people think you are making money they start mentally putting you in the spam category, which, I can say from experience, is incredibly disheartening. When I read this very touching blog about Hack Circus I instantly recalled the difficulties of promoting The Thing Is, a student magazine I helped run. We’d spend hours working to produce it, and then people would assign the most malign motives to us when we tried to get the word out. Forums (and hackspace mailing lists…) are incredibly hostile to people promoting things, even things that are highly relevant and not-for-profit.  Twitter, which didn’t exist when we did TTI, is fine with you promoting your projects. If you don’t like it, you can unfollow. Similarly, university internal mailing lists are very supportive.

For the record, we made no money and did not intend to. All of us, especially Theo and Tom, spent many many days on it.

Museum of Lies won the popular vote for best hack

Win number two was sponsorship. Theo got Ravensbourne Uni to sponsor us, effectively providing us with an amazing space for free. Unexpected lesson: open-plan office accoutrements are great for hacking. We were in the auditorium, but we were able to borrow big TV screens on wheels and also office dividers from around the Uni. Office dividers turned out to be great for making ad hoc structures for people’s hacks. Big TVs make hacking at scale possible.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 00.37.21

Bare Conductive gave us conductive paint and it was a hit with hackers. Tessel were incredibly generous with us, gave us amazing hardware, and ended up hand delivering it from the US, because they are lovely (they were coming over anyway…)

Having seen these two bits go right, I started to worry that the dynamic on the day would be wrong. I imagined us finishing the talks, explaining all the hardware then saying “GO!” to the audience and them all just staring at each other, not knowing what to do. I got so paranoid about it that I caused an entirely pointless argument with Theo about the exact location of the chairs and tables, which I thought violated some kind of hacking feng shui, an entirely spurious concern.

We asked people to propose projects in our forum before the event, but very few people did. This only heightened my concerns. I should have had more faith, when we asked people to come to the front and pitch ideas about half of the participants did. There were too many ideas, not too few – fortunately teams were able to consolidate out of similar pitches and we ended up with a manageable number.

People at the front pitching ideas
People at the front pitching ideas

I can’t say if we could rely on that happening again, but it does make me think of a weird paradox in the way that I allocate time to the hackdays that I’ve been to. When I get emails from hack organisers I think “Don’t have time for this!”, and I never go and do whatever they want me to on their forum / google doc / IRC etc. Which makes absolutely no sense because I’m about to devote a whole weekend to the hack. In my mental accounting the hackday has to be boxed into a weekend timeline, otherwise I somehow feel it’s making an unreasonable demand on me. Perhaps other people feel like this.

And then at the end of it all people produced amazing hacks, hopefully we’ll have a proper video up soon. I wanted to use this space to record lessons learned, and the biggest one is that stepping out of your IT comfort zone is massively time consuming.

The winners (Scott Wooden and Chris Brown), who made a (highly addictive) web game, had an almost production ready app with animated transitions and beautiful graphics. Both of the team were using a language they use professionally (javascript), presumably using the tooling they use everyday at work. For them the hack was a chance to push what they already knew in a new direction, which they did very successfully.

Get The Banana, jury prize winner
Get The Banana, jury prize winner

Contrast that with a hack that starts with borrowing a Raspberry Pi from our hardware library. Even if you know Raspberry Pis a bit, there’s hours of flashing SD cards (if you want your preferred OS), finding out IP addresses, turning on SSH, discovering passwords before you can start. Wait, this is a Raspberry Pi 2? Does this library work with it? And so on…

I could do another post on the hostility of the Raspberry Pi as a platform, some of which I think is wilful, but there are two things I’d do differently if there was another chance and more resource. Two things other than sort out Raspberry Pi.

Firstly, I’d start out with hardware in functioning setups. Want a servo running off a Pi? Here’s one that we know works. Hack it if you want, but you can see it working now, so if it stops working you can probably work out why. If you really screw up, we could just flash you a new SD and rescue you.

Secondly, you can’t help teams very much when you are organising. I’d love to have spent more time helping hack, but I was too busy wrestling with an industrial scale coffee percolator or running the hardware library. There’s no solution to this except to have more people helping.

The hack was a laboratory too, we had two ethnographers looking at it, I was graphing the Twitter network around the event and there will be a follow up survey. Hopefully that will allow us to prove the value of the event to future sponsors, and also help us improve the next one, if anyone ever has enough energy to do one again.

A final lesson learned was the the output was so good that it was very sad to take it all apart after the show and tell – we could easily run an exhbition of the work which allowed more people to see what had been achieved. Next time…










I don’t think myself party political, not really, so I’m surprised to discover that I’m feeling quite desolate about the election, frankly a bit shaken.

Many wouldn’t agree, but actually the Tories won’t destroy the NHS, they’ve made reasonable commitments which I think they’ll stick to. The aggression with which they will tackle the deficit is sub-optimal, but not that different to Labour’s plans. The human rights situation is admittedly disappointing, but you never get everything you wanted.

So why does it seem so grim to me? Because, I think, it’s so contradictory to my natural optimism about politics, and the way it makes me feel uncomfortable about my own country. I don’t how this compares with what others have said; I can’t bear to read the analysis yet.

First of all, I don’t think politicians are the sociopaths of the popular imagination. Watching Jim Murphy’s emotional concession speech ought to convince anyone that they do have a soul. We hear that Nick Clegg wept copiously when speaking to his team – and with good reason, his world, and that of his colleagues and friends had just been destroyed.

Politicians know it’s a cruel job when they stand, but it’s hard not to feel that the Lib Dems especially suffered an injustice, punished by a public who can’t or won’t understand how coalition works, determined to construe the Clegg as a cynical promise breaker, which of course the Labour supporters revelled in. I think it’s a terrible loss, in general they bring a philosophical bent to politics — not many join the Lib Dems out of power lust. Contrast Clegg’s resignation speech about the tradition of Liberalism across Europe with other leaders, who simply rallied their parties around the idea that they would do better next time.

So, sensitive soul that I am, just watching tired politicians give the speeches that must have run through many times in their nightmares makes me sad. And we only see the big names, when back benchers loose their seats they might not be offered their pick of cushy non-executive directorships. I imagine it’s a fairly brutal transition to anomie.

But they did volunteer for it. The real, grinding, gloom-laden realisation was about the nation, not a handful of individuals: things are not even going in the right direction. We’re going backwards. Not in the nitty-gritty of policy, that comes and goes, but in terms of the social settlement between the powerful and the vulnerable.

You might find it a shock that I didn’t realise this before, but I make a point of avoiding the lazy generalisation that everything’s going to the dogs. It wasn’t as good as it used to be. It’s cheap, and boring, to make yourself look wise through omni-pessimism. The world is getting richer, the gap between developed and developing countries is shrinking. Healthcare for the poorest improves constantly, several major disease are on the brink of oblivion.

I misconstrued this super-macro view of progress and just assumed that the UK was generally going with the flow, and with some reason. After all, the right didn’t win a decisive victory in 2010, when it seemed like it should have stormed into power. Brown was terrible and the economy was in tatters – they still failed.

Party politics seemed to be shifting to a more pluralistic modus operandi. I felt so optimistic when the News of the World shut, and I rejoiced when Miliband told Murdoch to shove it, and won praise for it too. The rampant anti-democratic force that is the Murdoch press seemed to be in a box, the tools that the powerful use to tilt the playing field in their favour seemed blunted.

We saw through the neo-liberal subterfuge after the crash. Fending off regulation by pretending you would move your bank’s head office to Hong Kong suddenly didn’t wash. We started to get angry with corporations doing the accountancy equivalent of a three cup shuffle, making their profits disappear while HMRC pretended to be a clueless punter. I started to imagine a country genuinely run in the interest of the many.

Then, suddenly, it’s full-strength Tory expropriation for the next 5 years, at least. I already have premonitions of a Johnson led Tory party riding the wave of full-fledged economic recovery into another term. Everyone voted exactly the way Murdoch told them to. Most of all, Cameron and Osborne are wielding a majority, and they are the very avatars of the old-school-Eton-Oxbridge-private-income-elite, protecting their own without a coalition to keep them in check.

I don’t think Murdoch and Cameron will meet Saudi oil Shakes and Monstanto execs in smoke filled rooms, transform in to lizards and hatch plots against the international proletariat.

I don’t think they coordinate at all, but the mood, the intellectual climate, starts to justify things that tend to make wealth flow up the food chain, apparently by coincidence. Regulate banker’s pay? Can’t do that, it’ll ruin international competitiveness. Reform Non Dom legislation? Ditto.

How long can we maintain the political will to regulate the insane financial products that caused the crash when the PM comes from a long line of bankers and the Tories are bankrolled by hedge funds?

News Corp want to buy Sky? Well, if they promise it will create jobs perhaps then democracy can go hang. We are in a GLOBAL RACE after all.

The “global race”, I now think, was Lynton Crosby’s master stroke. It’s the crux of both the conservative victory and a rationalisation of injustice.

Sure, some people voted Tory for selfish economic reasons, but so many people voted for them, and their policies really only benefited home-owning pensioners.

To account for the voters who seemed to vote against their own interests we have to think of voters as trying maximise the country’s collective prestige and power, not concerning themselves with their personal welfare. Doesn’t matter if you are on a minimum-wage zero-hour contract, if the country is overall getting richer then we (you) are winning the global race.

In Miliband’s interview with Paxman, Paxman claimed someone came up to him on the tube and told him that Miliband couldn’t govern because he wasn’t tough enough to deal with Putin. Paxman retells the anecdote because it captures something about Miliband, and the conservative strategy that triumphed over him. The questions the Conservatives wanted everyone to ask themselves was “who will make Britain feel virile again?”.

Voters look to rich, old-school, confident born-to-rule Cameron and see the very thing that they want the nation to be perceived as internationally: a natural winner in the fictive global race.

If the global race gets you to power, it also explains all the cruel policies your going to implement. We must compete!

And of course, a strong, powerful Britain will include Scotland. Loosing it would be sign of weakness, and voters were erroneously convinced that Conservatives will use their muscular pragmatism to weld the countries together. Never mind that Scotland and England are now completely at political odds and the breakup seems inevitable. Labour could hardly campaign by saying they should win so England didn’t upset the SNP too much – but that was the recipe to preserve the union.

I fervently hope the decimation of the left and the destruction of the Lib Dems will lead to some kind of breaking point which galvanises a genuinely progressive and effective political momentum.  Especially since there is no other escape valve: no government with a majority is going to consider electoral reform, which I think is the only thing that could make me even a tiny but optimistic.

A place where we can take national pride from something other than how many percentage points we eke GDP up by in some ludicrous, meaningless race. Perhaps there’s a place for organisations other than parties trying to drive a shift in thinking of this kind; it doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing that they’ve been very successful in doing.

I see Dougald Hine has many sensible reflections on how this can work, and perhaps the grass roots movements that have sprung up across Europe can teach us something. Here is the only positive note I can find: many Tory voters are ashamed of what they did, that’s why they can’t tell pollsters their intentions. That is not the basis of a durable political settlement. Meanwhile, I think there are large and growing number of people who want to use their skills not to earn more money but to do what they feel to be morally right, which could be incredibly powerful.

If I’m really honest though, the deepest wound is to my identity. I try to make the most positive contribution I can to society, and when I say society I’ve always thought of it as the nation. But then I discover that most people in my country, especially outside the cities, don’t share my values at all, or perhaps simply don’t have any firm political commitments. Lots of people live lives at odds with the prevailing political mood in their country, but it never occurred to me that I did.

Even though I don’t especially like the Labour party, if the country had voted for them in reasonable numbers I could understand where they were coming from. But when so many people willingly steer the country towards plutocracy against their own personal interests I wonder who they really are. I feel dislocated like some colonial explorer who spends decades abroad as an emblem of Britishness only to come home and discover he no longer recognises the country.

Only instead of the African interior, I’ve been in East London, or perhaps in the Twitter bubble. I know that in time I’ll get used to it, perhaps if I make an effort even reintegrate into my native country, but at the moment I think I prefer the leeches and hashtags and malaria and cold-brew coffee of equatorial Hackney.