Brickstarter the book

Now available for download as PDF (33mb) and purchase via print on demand.

Brickstarter the book contains 80 dense pages filled with the research presented here, refined and reformatted, as well as entirely new essays and illustrations. This book is a primer for people working on problems at the intersection of crowdfunding/sourcing, social media, urban planning and decision-making. So in other words, it’s about contemporary cities and how we might create new platforms to enable more effective debate about the future of our shared spaces.

Book mockup

This project evolved out of the Brickstarter blog, including the research, sketching, and prototyping we engaged in over the cource of 2012. The Brickstarter book, however, would not have been possible without the confident and persistent editorial voice of Rory Hyde, who we were able to convince to take on this project despite the fact that he was also in the middle of an intercontinental move. We were also lucky to work with Bitcaves, a Dutch graphic design duo who manifested Brickstarter as a colorful, playful publication.

In parallel to working on the book, we also built a rough clickable mockup of two pages that would be part of Brickstarter with the help of Siili.fi. This is now available for download as a package (of HTML, CSS, and Javascript) for people who want to hack. Fair warning: it may not work consistently on all browsers. It may not work at all! That being said, Safari should yield fairly consistent performance.

Back to the book. Here’s what it looks like:


Joseph Grima, Editor in Chief of Domus and curator of the Istanbul Design Biennial contributed the foreword. Our Sitra colleagues Jukka Noponen and Karoliina Auvinen provide a Finnish perspective.


We’ve written a completely new introduction.


The interviews were updated.


Maija summarized the fact cards, visually highlighting an opportunity for any forward-thinking governments who want to act in this space…


Two photoessays are included, each depicting an episode of difficult democratic decision-making.


We explain the prototypes.


And the conclusion… well that you’ll have to download the PDF to find out about. Hope you like it.

nb. As of this post, Sitra has completed its work on Brickstarter and by publishing this book we transfer the rights to you, the community. Project creators Bryan Boyer and Dan Hill have both stepped down from their positions at Sitra and will be exploring these ideas and potentials through other venues.

Wired, The Guardian, USA Today, the Economist, and many others have taken note of this project: the demand for Brickstarter exists. Now it’s yours to take forward, to build, to reassemble!

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Posted by
Bryan Boyer

What happens next?

From the very start, the response to Brickstarter has been incredible. We knew as soon as we started writing (and seeing your anxious inquiries about our launch date) that we had hit a nerve. The momentum behind crowdfunding in contemporary culture and the equally great frustration with the opacity of the way our cities evolve proved to be two ideas that resonate together.

As we’ve tried to underscore through successive updates to this website, Sitra is making a prototype but we are not building Brickstarter, and certainly not as a globally available service. Flowing from Sitra’s role in Finland, we are attempting to build just enough to prove the viability of the idea, and then let others take over. Brickstarter is a provocation.

We talk about it as if it already exists because we are sure that it will in a few years time through the efforts of Neighborland, IOBY, Joukkoenkeli, Kickstarter, and others who are nibbling on this problem from different angles. We’ve used the existing work on crowdfunding and crowdsourcing to highlight some of real challenges that will have to be addressed as these approaches are applied to the built environment.

Thirteen months into this effort we are at an inflection point. Shortly we will begin an experiment with the city of Kotka in eastern Finland. Simultaneously we will publish a book that summarizes our research and prototyping with Brickstarter. It should be available in May via this website as a free PDF as well as a physical copy, though we don’t know how distribution is going to work just yet. The book describes the role of technology and cultures of decision-making to enable YIMBY over NIMBY. We hope it to be useful to anyone who is building a platform to support shared decisions about shared spaces and/or anyone who considers themselves a civic entrepreneur.

More about the book as it develops, but the content is a mix of pieces from this website (updated, refined, revisited) and new essays. We’re lucky to have Rory Hyde as our editor. Here’s what it looks like right now:


We knew when we got into this that it was going to be a long play. Since we started this Brickstarter.org site we’ve had countless meetings with three cities in Finland, searching for a partner to take the ideas forward into action. Sitra has a specific proposal for how to prototype a new culture of decision-making, and we even have money to facilitate the experiment, but our unique value-add is the ability to work with government, so unless we’re able to realize that promise it doesn’t make sense for Sitra to risk stepping on the toes of market players already beginning to thrive in the crowdfunding/crowdsourcing space. We don’t want to build a platform to support just bottom-up developments anymore than we want to build one that works only top-down. Rather, Brickstarter has traced out the opportunity for an intermediary that sits between these two perspectives, and accomplishing that vision requires having a strong relationship with both sides.

Our discussions continue at the slow pace of municipal negotiations. This is the reality of working with cities today (again, we speak to the situation in Finland but your experiences may vary), and it is one of the reasons that we found so few platforms engaging directly with decision-making. Partly it’s a question of business model. The small offices working at the bleeding edge of technology are rarely able to dedicate enough time an attention to landing a municipal client. Meanwhile, cities are in many cases still struggling to find their footing when it comes to procurement of websites and services, often receiving suboptimal results from large (and expensive) consultancies.

IT consultancies are still providing the bulk of services here because, one imagines the logic going, websites involve information technology. While true, what we’ve see in the past decade is the nature of the web shift from being something additional to being core—from a nice to have to need to have. The web is no longer “technology” as such, it’s merely a channel of communication with its own norms, tropes, and culture. It also happens to be the default channel for many users in the global north. Whereas a decade ago we may have been happy to find our shopping, the food we eat, or the services that a city provides on the internet, today we expect them all to be there (and more).


As we’ve observed Helsinki and others attempt to use the web to source input from its citizens, we’ve seen the city struggle to get good results from its procurement process. Instead, forms like the one pictured here are the result. We can do better.

During the first half of this year Sitra will be working with the city of Kotka in eastern Finland to prototype some of the ideas that came out of Brickstarter. What we build is going to look much different than the prototype. In that sense, the work we’ve done is part of an iterative approach. The ideas have evolved, will continue to evolve, and so too will the expression of those ideas. The experiment in Kotka will involve technology, but it will also be a very human effort. Brickstarter has always been about decision-making, and that means spending time with decision-makers to help them make sense of the changes in society and technology. We will be helping Kotka’s leaders find ways to proactively create room for grassroots activity—for YIMBY.

Stay tuned for updates about our continued prototyping in Kotka and the forthcoming Brickstarter book.



Posted by
Bryan Boyer

What can government learn from crowdsourcing? 2/2

All of the examples presented in our Fact Cards have features that could be adopted, one way or another, by public services to develop public decision-making more ‘public’. When building a platform, a number of things need to happen already at the stage when the foundations are laid. Fundamental questions need to be discussed before a platform like Brickstarter can go live. The list below is not finished and there are more things to be added. There are numerous open questions without an answer, but how to come to a mutual understanding?

Services like Kickstarter, indiegogo, and Spacehive make a living by retaining a percentage of the transactions for funding projects featured on their website. But how is a public service like Brickstarter funded? If we were to play with the idea that each Finn gets to spend 1% of their tax money for their own preferred purpose, could a portion of that be retained for running the platform if all money were distributed through that? One might argue that a public service is not meant to make profit, but there are operational costs to be covered. If the service was self-financed, maybe some tax exemptions could be applied.

What are the risks for running such a service and how are they mitigated? When money is involved, it unfortunately attracts those who are looking for personal benefits rather than shared value. When it comes to investing money, for example buying stock in a company, investors are protected through financial mechanisms which are then supervised by the Financial Supervisory Authority. But if instead of buying stock a citizen chips in 10€ for renovating a local playground? 10€ is not a big loss, but when 100 people donate, it becomes 1000€. Who is overseeing the projects and making sure they are carried through and that the crowdfunded money goes where it is supposed to go.

IMG_3431A recent (3 November) gamified article in Helsingin Sanomat about the bureaucracy and challenges of building a skate park in Helsinki.

If crowdfunding were allowed for non-profit projects serving the ‘public good’, a question follows: What can be considered ‘public good’? What is ‘public’ and how to estimate the effects of the funds collected and distributed? Is street furniture in a block public and does it serve a big enough mass to be legible for crowdfunding? If a group decides to work on a cultural project and sell tickets in advance to fund the costs, are the sellers and buyers for the pre-purchased tickets subject to VAT? Does the seller need to be a registered entity (association, business, etc.)? Can the product be immaterial, e.g. culture? What if people are not satisfied with the ‘product’ they have purchased. Does consumer protection legislation apply in these cases? Some rules need to apply to the ‘trading’ but once again, it should be kept as open as possible.

Another set of questions rises regarding project delivery. Who is responsible for delivering the project and who defines what is the right way to deliver a project? Internal conflicts might affect group dynamics and set the project at stake. If a municipality engages citizens in decision-making on a more deeper level, resources must be allocated in guidance and stewardship.

In terms of enabling innovation and new business development, existing services like Kickstarter  and Smallknot have done a great job in providing small business ventures a tiny bit of cash to test their products and develop them further. These are the types of companies who wouldn’t necessary get a loan from a bank, but might be the next big thing. In a stagnating economy, innovative projects and businesses are what the financial system would need.


Once your idea is out, it’s there for good. If someone posts an idea or a product online, is it protected by copyright and how is intellectual property protected? Are the ideas and opportunities available for everyone to take and develop further or does everyone sign an open NDA upon registration? Copyrights and patents might seem old-fashioned nowadays, but these questions are very current when more high-tech applications are available.

A recent study conducted at the City of Turku Urban Research and Statistics Unit shows a clear demand for e-democracy and how Finnish Municipalities have not been successful in engaging citizens in decision-making online. According to Statistics Finland, almost 80% of Finns used the internet daily in 2011. With more and more open data available online, it is fair to say, that citizens should be allowed to be part of the circle deciding how the society should be developed. Using the internet as a tool and enabler, it doesn’t mean that there should be no life outside of it. Quite the opposite: it should be used to help coordinate projects that are then carried out in real life. Finding a balance between online and offline is key. Looking your neighbour in the eye and enabling peer discussion as well as debates is not only about city planning, it’s about building trust and a culture of collaboration.

And finally: Who actually decides? Finland is a welfare state with comprehensive public services. These are funded through comparatively high taxes. In a way, the Finnish government ‘crowdfunds’ large sums of money from citizens but citizens don’t get to decide directly how this money is distributed, except through representation. However, representation does not exclude participation. There are people all around Finland rolling up their sleeves and getting things done much more efficiently than their local officials who can’t see what’s happening right under their eyes.

As people get more active, the public sector responds by another set of rules and guidelines. And creating more rules simply enhances the NIMBYism. But if citizens are able to put ideas forward and be actively working with them, that would reverse NIMBYism into YIMBYism. Who makes the decision about their neighbourhood seems a simple question, but what if a neighbourhood could take advantage of the internet to receive funding from anywhere? Whose opinion weighs more and can someone from Munkkiniemi in Helsinki have a say in the local issues in Herttoniemi? And what if someone suggests a dog park to be built on the same spot where their neighbour has just suggested an outdoor gym? How are issues of mutual exclusivity dealt with? It will either be one suggestion or the other, it cannot be both.

Screen shot 2012-09-05 at 12.39.17 PMWhy isn’t social media among listed when the city asks how citizens follow municipal decision making?

While city of Helsinki is still doing ‘participatory democracy’ through web surveys like shown above, for example the UK Cabinet Office has moved forward in development and GDS, Government Digital Services is an excellent example on how things can be done differently within government.

Instead of citizens being turned away from government, government should actively seek ways of mobilising citizens and engaging them in public debate and allowing the public to participate at their own initiative. A dialog and a brainstorm are not the same thing.

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Posted by
Maija Oksanen

What can government learn from crowdsourcing? 1/2

Last week I posted about how crowdfunding initiatives have been facing headwind in Finland owing much to the helplessness of authorities, who seem paralysed when coming into contact with new ways of harnessing the internet. Our series of Fact Cards have showcased some of the interesting examples globally. These projects usually take the form of social improvement or not-for-profit activities but also small-scale businesses have taken advantage of the opportunity, and funding for developing physical products is becoming increasingly popular. As a result a new market has emerged as a viable alternative for sourcing capital or manpower to support innovative, entrepreneurial ideas and ventures.

The reason for posting these examples has been to document the ongoing spread of a phenomenon emerging (mostly online) over the last few years and to answer – and raise – questions about crowdfunding and sourcing and how these tools could be harnessed and used to bridge the gap between government and citizens. A traditional feedback form, even if an electronic one, is not enough any more: Governments need to listen and communicate with citizens instead of ignoring them. Citizens are not happy with only reporting on street lights that are out.

After the Finnish municipal election on 28 October, the focus wasn’t so much on the newly-elected municipal councillors, but on the low turnout of voters: Only 58,3% of those entitled to vote showed up at the polling stations (low for Finland). The fingers were pointing towards politicians immersed in their own game not being able to communicate with the voters. Many of them still seem to think that the role of a citizen ends after they’ve cast their ballot in the box.

baanaBaana skate ramp after the city dug an moat around it in response to citizen complaints about noise.

The city of Helsinki employs about 40 000 people being one of the largest employers in Finland. The city consists of its citizens and exists because of them, so would it harm to ask how they feel about things happening in their front yard? When the city continues to fail to take notice of its people, things like Ravintolapäivä happen. Or the Baana Skate-gate.

One of the reasons we have been looking at crowdfunding and crowdsourcing platforms is that in its current state, municipal government isn’t very appealing to citizens. In peoples’ minds, city planning does not compete with the education department, government competes with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Justin Bieber, etc. And this is what it looks like from the point of view of a citizen:

1351489135396Image borrowed from Helsingin Sanomat/Lasse Rantanen.

Instead of trying to force people into a system created two hundred years ago, why not adapt and find people where they already are? Public services should be taken to 21st century rather than pushing citizens back to the 19th century. The tools for building more collaborative relationships in public decision-making exist, it is merely a question of taking advantage of them.

Here’s where the Fact Cards come in: The internet enables sharing information, collaborative decision-making and sharing and contributing human resources and rather than opposing it, government should learn and take advantage of it. To formulate a synthesis of all the platforms we’ve looked into so far, this spreadsheet comes in handy. The first tab lists all the platforms we found relevant in terms of the Brickstarter project and runs through the key elements of each platform. Roughly 1/3 is focused on crowdfunding and the remaining 2/3 on crowdsourcing. Its good to bare in mind that our sample of 27 platforms/projects is not even the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds more existing online and more emerging every day.

Screen shot 2012-11-08 at 11.17.41 AM

Another general notion of our sample is that except for a few cases, all the examples share a bottom-up approach, where citizens independently form groups and are actively working with projects from the grassroots upward. Coincidentally almost all of these are projects not involving government. The top-down examples are more traditional and often involve the government in a supportive role. These are also the examples most likely to have only a low or medium level of engagement from the citizens. This means that they are mainly used as passive channels to collect (mainly negative) feedback which is then processed by the government, not enabling citizens to actively take part in decision-making.

The second tab in our spreadsheet looks at the platforms in different categories: Services like Kickstarter and Spacehive are great examples of crowdfunding. Joukkoenkeli and Neighborland are about crowdsourcing ideas. The likes of Avoin Ministeriö, Aloitekanava and Demokratia.fi mediate information to and from government, but are rather passive.

Projects like Osallistuva Budjetointi and Stadin aikapankki enable more active participation from the citizen point of view. Hukkatila is an excellent example of collaborative decision-making and activism without an internet platform. And when looking at all these examples, it’s good to bear in mind that the web didn’t invent crowdsourcing or crowdfunding – it just made it easier.

The third tab in the spreadsheet divides the different examples into four dimensions (government, non-government, active, passive) and the image below shows how these platforms and projects are positioned in relation to these dimensions.

Kuvankaappaus 2012-11-16 kello 16.38.06
Keeping in mind our narrow sample, it’s still pretty fair to say that there is more traffic on the Non-government side. The little that is happening on the government side, is mainly below the horizontal line. What is empty and lacking content is the upper right corner – and that’s where a platform like Brickstarter would be positioned.

The way Brickstarter is sketched borrows many of its features from social media such as comments, badges, votes/’likes’ and so on. Collaborative decision-making can imitate social media, and it should: I bet Facebook has more daily visitors than all municipal websites in Finland combined. A modular approach – using Vimeo to embed video, using Google Maps, comments from Facebook, or for example using Holvi to run crowdfunding campaigns suggests to government that services can be built extremely quickly and securely – and so prototyping public services becomes not only possible but desirable, compared to slow-moving government IT projects.

The second part for this post will be published Monday 19 November.

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Posted by
Maija Oksanen

Gray area

Crowdfunding could be a nice shot in the arm to boost the sluggish economy. Amongst our Fact Cards there are some great examples internationally, but for some reason the Finnish authorities have taken a resistant stand and the examples we have posted from Finland are all about crowdsourcing not funding.

Positioned somewhere in the gray areas of economy, crowdfunding is not impossible nor illegal in Finland, but it usually involves handing over a hefty check to a legal adviser who can help a project navigate through the messy jungle of legislation and avoid stepping into the traps of wording’s and false expressions that could result in unpleasant dealings with the authorities. But in the case of say, a small scale urban development project, the price tag for a lawyer might exceed the budget for the project tenfold. The projects are left alone to carry the burden of searching for funding through other means, which in many cases means people involved digging their own pockets.

Having really hit Finland over the past year, crowdfunding (and its hazy positioning in the legal system) has been noted in the media throughout Finland. A bunch of active citizens have started lobbying for clarification from the government side of things, naturally by crowdsourcing, and started a project to re-write the Fundraising Act.

Whether being discreet or running a campaign in English and staying out of Finish mainstream media did the trick, there have been successful crowdfunding campaigns left unnoticed by the Finnish authorities: For example, the film Iron Sky used crowdfunding to cover costs of filming and collected around 700 000€. Kickstarter has also been used to fund projects like the Wishbone. Currently Unmonday is running a Kickstarter campaign to sell wireless ceramic Airplay speakers and BiiSafe is developing a remotely controllable dock.

Despite the positive signals, the Finnish government seems to be living in a time before the Internet: Instead of looking into opportunities, officials are in denial and not realising that projects like these are emerging on a daily basis. And if you make the mistake of doing something innovative and going public about it, you’re calling for trouble.

Meet Senja Larsen, also known as Fröken Senja. Senja wanted to improve her Swedish, so she started a Facebook page to connect with like minded people. Her study group became extremely popular reaching more than 16 000 followers (big in Finnish terms) and the project that had grown from a one-person initiative to a group of contributors started collecting material to publish a book. The group decided to use Kickstarter to raise funding to publish the book. By this time the project had gained attention in the Finnish media (see articles in Finnish here, here and here).


The book project exceeded its original goal of 10 000€. At this point the Finnish National Police Board got interested in the case and asked for clarification on the project. After receiving a reply from Senja and the project team, the National Police Board claimed the project violated the Finnish fundraising act (download PDF in Finnish). Interestingly enough, four Finnish professors had all taken an opposing view on the matter.

The Kickstarter campaign was called off, backers were given their money back and the books were donated to the backers. All this was also widely documented in the Finnish media (see articles here, here and here). The Police Board did not proceed with the case since the crowdfunding was canceled. The final turn was the intervention of the Finnish Fair Corporation who bought books worth of 11 000€ to use at their events. The purchase was big enough to cover for the costs of printing the books. Everyone won, right?

The Finnish fundraising act is very strict and aims at making sure that donated money ends up in the right place as well as protecting citizens from frauds. Finland surely being no exception, every year a number of people send money in response to circling hoax emails and especially older people are an easy target.

Screen shot 2012-11-05 at 3.44.46 PM

Many crowdfunding cases are more like pre-sales than fundraising, as majority of them offer a reward or product to the supporters. So in a way, the Police Board was applying the wrong legislation in the case. Renewing legislation and reinterpreting it would enable more creative projects to collect funding from the public. A balance should be found somewhere between enabling new business and protecting consumers. It should be up to people themselves to decide how to spend their money and therefore the legislation should only focus on preventing the obvious frauds, not preventing a market from emerging.

Case Senja took another turn the other day, when the team announced the renewal of their Kickstarter campaign in response to a plea by the
Aalto University Entrepreneurship Society and Borenius & Co, a Finnish attorneys office. Often these cases are a matter of wording than anything else. Mention word ‘fundraising’ on your website without the official permission or drop the number of your bank account in the wrong place and before you know it, you’re being persecuted of a fundraising violation. Technically it is illegal to have a PayPal Donate-button on a Finnish website.

Senja is now preparing to renew her campaign to fund the tablet version of the book with the support of law experts, which will hopefully prove the case. If the project turns out successful and is legally solid, other projects can follow in their footsteps. In the long run this is not the right way to go: legislation should be adapted to enable crowdfunding and creative initiatives.

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Posted by
Maija Oksanen

Community-owned renewable energy in Germany

HattendorfA few weeks back, I was on vacation in a northern German small town, talking to an old friend over coffee, waiting for the rain to pass so that we could get our bike ride in the nearby hills started. I told him about my research here at Sitra, which is mainly concerned with local energy solutions in Finland, and in passing he mentioned his involvement in setting up a coop-owned wind turbine. Needless to say, I had to get that story down.

In 1993, a 54m-high wind turbine went online in Hattendorf, a village of about 550 inhabitants close to Hannover. Yearly, it generates an average of 374.000kW/h, which is enough to provide energy for about 90 three-person households. What is remarkable about the project is that it was realized at a time when wind energy in Germany was not yet the safe and profitable investment that it is today. Instead, the founders of the coop took a risk with installing a (at the time) powerful 350kW turbine. Thus, the members of this coop were early adopters of an increasingly common ownership model, as coop-owned wind parks in Germany are now more popular than ever (see here). They took a pioneering role (along with many similar initiatives) in establishing a specific way of bringing sustainable, bottom-up energy into their communities.

This project predates the German Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) with its favorable legislation by many years as it was realized in 1992-1993. Where today wind power is a safe and profitable investment in Germany, the situation at that time was different. The “Growian” experiment with a single 3MW turbine had turned out to be a spectacular failure, leading to the realization that big-scale wind power was not (yet) feasible. Small-scale projects were often do-it-yourself solutions prone to failure and high maintenance costs.

Still, a small core group of about 10 people decided to aim high and realize an ambitious, actually profitable project. The tasks at hand were clear: securing the financial backing through the coop and finding a suitable site for the wind turbine.

Finding investors was the easier task, as the initiators found them in their own social circles – a heterogeneous group of colleagues from work, spouses, farmers, public servants, and locals interested in an environmentally (and financially) sustainable investment. Together with a government loan, they were able to secure the necessary sum of 230.000€. As word-of-mouth was enough, the coop did not have to seek investors through advertising.

In the beginning stages meetings were regular, as many decisions had to be made. The members of the coop participated actively in the building process where possible, for example in laying the foundation or clearing the construction site from stones. Ironically, the coop had to plant fruit trees to account for the negative environmental effects of the wind turbine – a task mainly taken up by the farmers organized in the coop.

Now, the members of the coop meet once a year, for dinner and the yearly finance report (always positive).

Finding a suitable site, engaging with dark matter so to speak, was initially problematic, as the coop was not able to get the necessary permits or the support of the land owners for the best possible site, a hill with good wind conditions from every direction. They had better luck with the second site however – though on lower ground it would provide sufficiently good wind conditions. As my friend put it: Compromise, transparency and fairness when engaging with other stakeholders were key to securing the site and making the project happen.

Would something similar be possible in Finland?

A recent article in Taloussanomat argues that Finland needs new coops as an investment in the welfare of its citizens. Following the example of Germany or Denmark, wind power would be the perfect candidate. Finland does have a rich tradition of coops, but there are few examples for coop-owned renewable energy sources. The Jylhänkoski water power plant or Lumituuli Oy, a customer-owned wind power plant close to Oulu, are impressive exceptions.

Empirical research in Germany (and elsewhere) has shown that community ownership can significantly improve the local acceptance of wind power – Finland could certainly profit from a similar development, as acceptance of wind power in general is relatively high while the opposition to concrete projects is at times quite strong. A platform like Brickstarter might contribute to bringing people interested in such a project together – in a way, coops are the original social network-based crowdsourcing initiative.

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Posted by
Erkki Hedenborg

Provocation IV: Open Questions

Note: This post is part of a series presenting the contents of our Brickstarter exhibition at the inaugural Istanbul Design Biennial, October 13-December 12th.


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“The architecture of tomorrow will be … both a means of knowledge and a means of action.” Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau

—Ivan Chtcheglov (1953)

There is nothing intrinsically democratic about crowdfunding, nor will it deliver a better city by itself, given our fraying social contracts. How do we avoid the inherent biases and ideologies within social media, which might be distinctly unhelpful in creating resilient cities? Crowdsourcing works well for products and software, but will it scale to the city where decisions are often singular, shared, and long-term?

While a revolution can be organised using Twitter, crowdfunding will never generate the billions required for urban infrastructure projects or urban services—yet might it locate capital to enable citizen-led proposals to be more complete, more convincing?

Might crowdfunding be a little “bread and circuses”, distracting from the city’s big issues? But what city wouldn’t be better if people cared for the small things?

Social media effectively organises events, and can certainly remove structures, but what does it suggest as a resilient, long-term replacement?

As an applied research project, Brickstarter attempts to more usefully frame these questions in prototypes. We hope it might sketch possibilities for more effective public decision-making, but also a more strategic form of design practice.

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Posted by
Bryan Boyer

Provocation III: Design Probes

Note: This post is part of a series presenting the contents of our Brickstarter exhibition at the inaugural Istanbul Design Biennial, October 13-December 12th.


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Brickstarter looks like a prototype of a crowdfunding website, but is really an exercise in navigating back and forth between matter and dark matter, between the malleable urban fabric and the decision-making cultures of communities and municipalities.

As a probe, it’s a sketch of a possible municipal service, designed to generate discussions with institutions—to ask the right questions about how we decide what to do and what to forgo. It is a prop used in conversation with civil servants, politicians and community groups to make the issues tangible and specific.

Every pixel of Brickstarter’s prototype is there to ask a question: do we have the right cultures of decision-making in place for 21st century cities?

Contemporary cities find themsevlves in the awkward position of no longer holding a monopoly. Social media and other forms of networked communication are showing us that a city’s websites have some unexpected competition. Facebook, Google, and other familiar and highly tuned services have pushed digital literacy up, creating a high standard that municipalities are not exempt from. Ignore this reality, and be ignored.

How could we absorb the dynamics of social media into new “social services”? Would more engaging services foster a progressive society, one that switches polarity from NIMBY to YIMBY—Yes In My Back Yard?

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Posted by
Bryan Boyer

Provocation II: Dark Matter

Note: This post is part of a series presenting the contents of our Brickstarter exhibition at the inaugural Istanbul Design Biennial, October 13-December 12th.


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“If you really want to change the city, or want a real struggle, a real fight, then it would require re-engaging with government … with these structures and these institutions, this horribly complex ‘dark matter.’”

—Wouter Vanstiphout

Vanstiphout’s use of the term “dark matter” suggests a form of imperceptible material that envelops its more easily perceptible outcomes—the observable physical matter of a neighbourhood block, a street food cart, a bike lane, a wind turbine.

Dark matter is the material that absorbs or rejects wider change.  It’s made of the accumulated invisibles that give the status quo its weight and inertia, and it defines a community’s ability to make their own decisions.

The market is already producing numerous crowdfunding & idea gathering solutions for cities. What the market won’t naturally do is address dark matter, or attempt to reshape it by directly engaging the democratic institutions that govern the city.

To accomplish this we need “probes” to explore the dark matter as a design material of its own, exposing how decisions are made. Illuminating dark matter reveals the texture and grain of our institutions, making their seams visible, and enabling us to see them as human constructions. That’s important because human choices are  always capable of being redesigned. This allows a more constructive, meaningful discussion about the city and how we make it.

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Posted by
Bryan Boyer

Provocation I: The Crowd

Note: This post is part of a series presenting the contents of our Brickstarter exhibition at the inaugural Istanbul Design Biennial, October 13-December 12th.


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Last year it was kicking off everywhere. Upheavals in Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, Croydon, Athens, Moscow, and elsewhere demonstrate that citizens are actively engaged in decision-making in their cities, whether institutions have formal channels for them or not.

But votes of no confidence do not always turn violent. More constructive urban activism is also on the upswing. Working below institutional radar, social media and crowdfunding can be used to build parts of the city, find new uses for old spaces, and develop urban services, all in new ways.

A crop of emerging platforms potentially enables the exploits of urban activists—today’s equivalents of the heroics that produced New York’s High Line, London’s Coin Street, or Renew Newcastle in Australia—to be shared, copied, translated and scaled. In doing so, they suggest a new kind of legible engagement in decision-making, even though this currently resides on the fringes, utilised only by a different 1%.

Yet do they exist simply because our municipal institutions are still in a 19th century mode, ill-equipped for 21st century conversations? Are city governments missing out on the available resources of a population that demands to be engaged with, not just served? Is it simply the outmoded practice of “consultation” itself that generates NIMBY responses? Will these new platforms necessarily enable a more sustainable, democratic decision-making, recreating the city as a public good?

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Posted by
Bryan Boyer

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