We have so many aspirations for big data and evidence based policy, but apparently a fatally limited capacity to see the obvious: voters were furious about immigration and the EU. Techniques exist to build better empirical evidence regarding issues that matter to citizens; we should use them or risk a repeat of the referendum.   

Commentators from all over the spectrum believe that the leave vote represents not (only) a desire to leave the EU, but also the release of a tidal wave of pent up anger. That anger is often presumed to be partly explained by stagnating living standards for large parts of the population. As the first audience question on the BBC’s Question Time program asked the panel “Project Fear has failed, the peasants have revolted, after decades of ignoring the working class how does it feel to be punch in the nose?”. The Daily Mail’s victorious front page said the “Quiet people of Britain rose up against an arrogant, out-of-touch, political class”. The message is not subtle.

Amazingly, until the vote, no one seemed to have known anything: markets and betting odds all suggested remain would win. Politicians, even those on the side of Leave, thought Brexit was unlikely. The man bankrolling the Brexit campaign lost a fortune betting that it wouldn’t actually happen (the only good news I’ve seen in days). Niall Ferguson was allegedly paid $500,000 to predict that the UK would remain.

This state of ignorance contrasts radically with what we do know about the country. We know, in finicky detail, the income of every person and company. We measure changes in price levels, productivity, house prices, interest rates, and employment. Detailed demographic and health data are available – we have a good idea of what people eat, how long they sleep for, where they shop, we even have detailed evidence about people’s sex lives.

Yet, there seems to be have been very little awareness of (or weight attached to) what the UK population itself was openly saying in large numbers.

Part of the reason must be that the government didn’t want to hear. Post crisis everything was refracted through the prism of TINA – There Is No Alternative. There was no money for anything, so why even think about it? Well, now we have an alternative.

The traditional method for registering frustration is obviously to vote – a channel which was jammed in the last election. Millions of people voted UKIP, or for the Green Party, and got one MP a piece: no influence for either point of view.  A more proportional voting system is one well known idea, and I think an excellent one, but there are lots of other possibilities too.

What if there was a more structured way to report on citizen’s frustrations on a rolling basis? An Office of Budgetary Responsibility, but for national sentiment – preparing both statistical and qualitative reports that act as a radar for public anger. It would have to go beyond the existing ‘issue tracking’ polling to provide something more comprehensive and persuasive. Perhaps the data could be publicly announced with the same fanfare as quarterly GDP.

Consultative processes at the local level are much more advanced than at the national level. Here is some of the current thinking on the best ways to build a national ‘anger radar’, drawing on methods widely used at the local level.

Any such process faces the problem of  ‘strategic behaviour’. If someone asks you your opinion on immigration, you might be tempted to pretend you are absolute furious about it, even if you are are only mildly piqued by the topic. Giving extreme answers might seem like the best way to advocate for the change you want to see. Such extreme responses could mask authentically important signals. Asking respondents to rank responses in order or assign monetary values to outcomes are classic ways to help mitigate strategic behaviour.

Strategic behaviour can also be avoided by looking at actions that are hard to fake. Economists refer to these as ‘revealed’ preferences – often revealed by the act of spending money on buying something. It’s awful to think about, but house prices might encode public opinions on immigration. If house prices are lower in areas of high immigration, it might reveal to us the extent to which citizen truly find it to be an issue. Any such analysis would have to use well established techniques for removing confounding factors, for example accounting for the fact the immigration might disproportionately be to areas with lower house prices anyway. This approach might not be relevant for the issues in EU referendum, but might be important for other national policies. Do people pay more for a house which falls in the catchment of an academy school, for example. (More technical detail on all these approaches).

Social media is another source of data. Is the public discourse, as measured on Twitter or Facebook (if they allowed access to the data) increasingly mentioning immigration? What is the sentiment expressed in those discussions? Certainly a crude measure, but perhaps part of a wider analysis – and ultimately no cruder than the methods used to estimate inflation.

All these approaches are valuable because they tell us about ‘raw’ sentiment – what people believe before they are given a space to reflectively consider. ‘Raw’ views are important since they are the ones that determine how people will act, for example at a referendum.

But that is not enough on it’s own. As discussed in a previous post, good policy will also be informed by a knowledge of what people want when they have thought more deeply and have information that allows them to act in their own best interests. These kinds of views could be elicited using using processes such as the RSA’s recently announced Citizen’s Economics Council, where 50-60 (presumably representative) citizens will be given time and resources to help them think deeply about economic issues of the day, and subsequently give their views to policy makers.

Delib, a company that provides digital democracy software, offers a budget simulator which achieves a similar goal. The affordances of the interface mean that uses have to allocate a fixed budget between different options using sliders. In the processes of providing a view, users intrinsically become aware of the various compromises that must be made, and deliver a more informed decision.

We live in a society where more data is available about citizen’s behaviour then ever before. As is widely discussed, that represents a privacy challenge that is still being understood. The same data represents an opportunity for governments to be responsive in new ways. Did the intelligence services know which way the vote would go using their clandestine monitoring of our private communications? Who knows.

We cannot predict everything, famously a single Moroccan street vendor’s protest set off the whole of the Arab Spring. But we can see the contexts that makes that kind of volatility possible, and I believe the anti immigration context could easily have been detected in the run up to the referendum.

There is no longer any reason for a referendum about the EU to become a channel for anger about tangentially related issues. The political class would not have been ‘punched on the nose’ if they were a little better a listening.

Hat tip: Thanks to the Delib Twitter account, which has been keeping track of the conversation about new kinds of democracy post Brexit, which I’ve used in this post.

Most democratic countries use representative democracy – you vote for someone  who makes decisions on your behalf (in the UK’s case your MP). The EU referendum is different, it’s an example of direct democracy. Bypassing their representative, every citizen who is eligible to vote will be asked to make a decision themselves.

The referendum has this feature in common with most participatory design processes (by PD I mean including end users in process of designing a product or service). PD is normally carried out with the stakeholders themselves, not representatives of them. You could think of referendum as a participatory design process, designing a particular part of the UK’s economic and foreign policy.

The EU referendum fails as a participatory design process in two important ways. Firstly, most of the participants are deeply ill informed about the issues at hand, and under these circumstances it will be impossible for them to act in their own best interests. The consequences of their design decision may well run counter to their expectations.

An IPSOS MORI survey shows that on average UK voters believe that 15% of the population are EU migrants, where in fact only 5% are. On provocative issues such as the percentage of child benefit that is paid to children living in Europe, many people widely overestimate the amount by over 100 times (it’s about 0.3%, where 1 in 4 respondents estimated more than 24%).

Richard Dawkins has noted that very few people know all the relevant details to cast a vote, and laments the bizarre logic often used in discussions. He recommends voting for ‘remain’ in line with a ‘precautionary principle’, and has the following quote to illustrate the level of debate on TV:

“Well, it isn’t called Great Britain for nothing, is it? I’m voting for our historic greatness.”

Of course, it’s a question of degree. It would be unreasonable to suggest only a tiny number of world-leading experts can voice meaningful opinions. But there does seem to be a problem when decision makers are systemically wrong about the basic facts.

The second way that EU referendum fails is that the participants do not reflect the makeup of the country as a whole. Much of the speculation on the outcome focuses on turn out – which age groups and social classes will make the effort to cast a vote. Yet it hardly seems fair that such an important decision will be taken by a self selecting group. Criticism of participatory design projects often rightly centres on the demographic profile of the participants, especially when more vocal or proactive groups override others. If young people were more inclined to vote, the chances of a remain result would increase dramatically. If people with lower incomes were more likely to vote, it would boost leave. I take this to be a serious problem in the voting mechanism.

These are difficult problems to solve. How can a participatory process have well informed participants and accurately reflect the demographics of country, while offering everyone the chance to vote?

Harry Farmer has suggested that the rising number of referendums in the UK tells us we need to reform the way we do representative democracy, rather than resorting to bypassing it. Representatives have the time and resources to become well informed on issues so they would in theory make better decisions. However, this does nothing to address the issue of turnout – MPs are themselves selected by voters who disproportionately well off and older. MPs themselves are very far from reflecting the demographics of the UK as a whole.

Two more radical solutions have been put forward by Stanford Professor James Fishkin. In his ‘deliberation day’ model, the whole country would be given the day off to learn about, discuss, and vote on a topic, perhaps on an annual basis. Participation would be encouraged with a $150 incentive. The advantage is that (almost) everyone is included, and that the incentive ought to be enough to ensure most demographics are well represented. The participants would also be well informed, having been given the day to think deeply in a structured way. However, it’s clearly a massive logistical and political challenge implement ‘deliberation day’.

Fishkin’s other suggestion is to throw over inclusion – the attempt to allow everyone to get involved – and instead use ‘deliberative democracy’. In this scenario, a sample of the population, chosen to reflect the demographic makeup of the country as a whole, come together for a weekend, to discuss and learn about an issue before casting votes. This gives us well informed participants who are demographically reflective of the country as a whole. The model is roughly similar to jury service. The drawback is that some people may find it unfair to have a small, unelected group make a decision that affects everyone.

Making participation freely open to all stakeholders while ensuring that the participants are well informed and demographically representative is difficult in any participatory design process. Some may feel that the opportunity to participate is enough, and that if the young, or the less well off, decide not to vote that’s up to them.

However, voters having incorrect beliefs about the basic facts seems to me to point to a fundamentally broken process, where any decisions made are unlikely to turn out well. In classic participatory design projects, approaches such prototyping, iteration and workshopping can help participants improve their understanding of the situation and empower them to make decisions in their own interests.

Are there similar approaches we could take to improve national decision making? Perhaps in the UK we could look at the structure of the press, and ask if having a tiny number of extremely rich newspaper proprietors holding sway over public opinion isn’t perhaps a serious problem for a country pretending to be a democracy.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 13.54.49

StoryMap is a project that I worked on with Rift theatre company, Peter Thomas from Middlesex University and Angus Main, who is now at RCA, and Ben Koslowski who led the project. Oliver Smith took care of the tech side of things.  

The challenge was very specific, but the outcome was an interface that could work in a variety of public spaces.

We were looking to develop an artefact that could pull together all of the aspects of Rift’s Shakespeare in Shoreditch festival, including four plays in four separate locations over 10 days, the central hub venue where audiences arrived, and the Rude Mechanicals: a roving troupe of actors who put on impromptu plays around Hackney in the weeks leading up to the main event.

We wanted something in the hub venue which gave a sense of geography to proceedings. In the 2014 Shakespeare in Shoreditch festival the audience were encouraged to contribute to a book of 1000 plays (which the Rude Mechanicals used this year for their roving performances). We felt the 2016 version ought to include a way for the audience to contribute too.

The solution we ended up with was a digital/physical hybrid map, with some unusual affordances. We had a large table with a map of Hackney and surroundings (reimagined as an island) routed into the surface.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 14.10.21

We projected a grid onto the table top. Each grid square could have a ‘story’ associated with it. Squares with stories appeared white. Some of the stories were from the Twitter feed of the Rude Mechanicals, so from day one the grid was partially populated. Some of them were added by the audience.

You could read the stories using a console. Two dials allowed users to move a red cursor square around the grid. When it was on a square with a story, that story would appear on a screen in the console.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 14.18.52 Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 14.18.10

If there was no story on the square, participants could add one. We had sheets of paper with prompts written on them, which you could feed into a typewriter and tap a response. Once you’d written your story, you put it in a slot in the console, and scanned it with the red button. (Example, Prompt: ‘Have you been on a memorable date in Hackney?’, Response: ‘I’m on one now!’)

Nearly 300 stories were submitted over 10 days.  Even though there really difficult to use, people loved the typewriters as an input method. Speaking from my own perspective, I found an input method that legitimised spelling mistakes and typos less intimidating. 

There were two modes of interaction – firstly, through the table based projection, which allowed a conversational, collective and discursive understanding of what had already been submitted.  Secondly, there was a more individual process of reading specific stories and adding your own story using the screen in the console. The second mode still relied on the projection, because you needed to move your cursor to find or submit a story.

The resolution of the projection was too low (because of the size of the table) for fonts or details to be rendered well. From this perspective, the map routed into the table really worked; it increased the ‘bandwidth’ of the information the table could convey, fine lines and small text worked well (which gave us a chance to play around with whimsically renaming bits of Hackney).

Having a way to convey spatialised data on a table where people can get round it and discuss it, combined with a (potentially private) way to add detail might work in a number of scenarios. Could it be a tool for planning consultation? A way to explore data spatialised in some other way, eg. a political spectrum or along a time line? Perhaps in a museum context?

The whole thing was developed as a web app, so it’s easy to extend across more screens, or perhaps to add mobile interaction. It’s opened my eyes to the fact that, despite all the noise around open data, there are relatively few ways to explore digital information in a collective, public way. The data is shared, but the exploration is always individual.  More to follow…

(I did a quick technical talk on how we delivered StoryMap for Meteor London, slides here.)

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.

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…










It’s hard to write about the Creative Citizens conference, it’s given me so much to think about that I can’t corral all the ideas into any sensible shape. A lot of the specific topics – participation, creativity, community, the city – have been in the air for so long that I won’t recount all my notes here.

Collectively, the big-picture keynote talks, plus all the on the ground research, snapped into focus a macro view of policy, politics, money and economics in a way that was completely fresh to me.

The panel at the end of the first day, composed of representatives from four think tanks, was the peg on which I mentally hung the rest of the conference.  It was during their discussion that I realised that the measurement of value was, for me,  the concept that tied everything together.

The research presented at Creative Citizens was asking people to value social cohesion, inclusivity, creativity, empowerment.

On another level, the wonks, quite bluntly, pointed out that politicians would evaluate policy by how it helped them claw their way across the next electoral threshold – services delivered cheaper, better education as measure by exam results, reduced benefit expenditure etc.

On the third, even more dismal, level, everyone accepts that as a society economic value is the default setting for measuring everything, which we shorthand as neoliberalism. This is inimical to the Creative Citizens agenda, which is two levels away on my just-invented policy measurement vagueness hierarchy (PMVH?).

When I worked at the (co-operative) council in Lambeth we said the co-design agenda was about, approximately, ‘getting more for your money in the era of austerity’. Very often I think academia gives the same impression, but it’s a bit of charade in both cases – one because it’s not clear how co-design or hyperlocal etc. convert to economic value, and two because I’m not sure that’s what we truly care about anyway.

What Geoff Mulgan’s talk made me think is that what’s really going on is an intellectual rejection of the notion of economic value. We aren’t really interested in hyperlocal media or co-design because it will help eek out the budget, but instead because it’s alternative value system to the remorselessly market based one, a system which we suddenly realised was horribly dysfunctional in 2008.

I heard four different speakers talk about the Occupy movement, regarding things like horizontal organisations, the hyperlocal perspective, what Occupy tells us about participation. But isn’t there a part of us that is interested in Occupy because it was literally manning the barricades against neoliberalism? Surely it’s a factor.

This ties into Adam Greenfield’s talk at LSE of the same week, where he was absolutely frank about his political views. I saw huge crowds thronging to see FT economist Martin Wolf speak on the financial crisis, before finding a more modest lecture theatre for Greenfield’s talk – I now take this to have symbolic significance. His thinking focuses on Creative Citizen themes, but from the perspective of ‘the city’, and I should note that he comes from a very different place on this.

The city, rather than the country, naturally becomes the unit of analysis, because a country, as abstraction, encourages abstract statistical and economic thinking, while the idea of a city makes us think of concrete things – town halls, street parties, the homeless. This is the mode of thought which gives rise to the Creative Citizens agenda, the two are one and then same. Geoff Mulgan and Paola Antonelli both spoke a great deal about projects led by mayors rather than presidents or prime ministers, I think for this reason.

So what should we make of the wonks telling us the Creative Citizen worldview wasn’t sufficiently ‘instrumental’? Creative Citizen ideas promise to serve up a little bit of everything with a selection of intangible benefits on the side, but as I’ve noted, politicians care about social indices – GDP, educational attainment, life expectancy, and in the short term.

Another question – wonkspeak alert – does community-led design “go to scale?”, or, how would it look if you did a lot of it? In my experience this isn’t something co-design proponents are particularly concerned with, but if you want to affect a change, surely it’s an issue?

I sensed that a lot of the audience felt that the think tankers didn’t ‘get it’. But it’s more interesting to assume that they did.

I wish I had a more intellectual reference point, but I kept on thinking of Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You, along time ago, when Bush was in power. He said that intellectual lefty Americans loved watching The West Wing because it let them pretend the President was a left-wing nobel laureate played by Martin Sheen, rather than confront the reality that he was a neo-conservative malapropism-prone Texan.

I wondered if there is a sense in which advocating small-scale, community-led, DIY policy could be seen as hiding out too, doing well-motivated, beautifully crafted projects, but failing to engage with governmental thinking – instead doing projects that aren’t expected to scale and aren’t persuasive to policy makers.

When I spoke to Leon Cruickshank about the community-led project he led in Lancaster he said that as part of his process he absolutely expected local government experts to have closed meetings where they could use technical language and voice expert opinions. It seems to me that many people wouldn’t always want to highlight that part of their project because it seems to go against the ethos.

But it absolutely addresses one of the points raised by the think tank panel, which was that community-led design ignores the experts who are needed to implement complex and technical aspects of projects. Perhaps these concessions to reality are should be made more of.

I do sometimes admire the brutally prescriptive approach that ‘deliberative democracy’ takes for exactly this reason, although Leon did mention some drawbacks to this approach.  Deliberative democracy also interests me because it seems so on-topic for these types of discussion but it never gets mentioned, perhaps because from an American university?

Anyway… it seems to me measurement could be part of the answer too. If it was possible to articulate measurements of inclusivity or community cohesion perhaps they would become more attractive targets for policy, and move up politician’s agenda. Where economic value and social values are in tension, one could make the tradeoff explicit. Currently, economic value wins because it can often be captured by a number.

Tying this back into my own research, what I’m looking at is studying community cohesion by looking at the digital signature it leaves behind, which I really hope has some potential to make more visible slippery constructs such as community cohesion, and play a part in this measurement idea.

Which again loops back on the Creative Industries workshop I attended in Beijing, where the idea of measuring the economic impact of creativity was discussed in some detail, including the notions of stated preferences as alternative to the revealed preferences of standard economic thought.

The conference ended on the day of the Indyref result, with all of the talk of revivified political culture that bought. Yesterday Ed Miliband proposed breaking up the banks and more local powers, perhaps the economists and the wonks are underestimating the Creative Citizens approach to politics, and it can be part of a new era of civic dynamism.