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Brickstarter goes Turkish

Apologies for the radio silence lately. We’ve been working hard on a number of other projects here in the strategic design unit at Sitra. Those include a Helsinki Design Lab event coming up in a few days, launching a food entrepreneurship bootcamp called Open Kitchen, and preparing Brickstarter for an exhibition.

We’re very happy to be participating in the inaugural Istanbul Design Biennial as part of Adhocracy, which is being curated by Joseph Grima of Domus and countless other projects. The curatorial statement is about as tailor-made for Brickstarter as I could imagine. Here are some snippets:

 The convergence of instantaneously shared knowledge, the birth of countless transnational networks, new technologies of production, and a collective impetus towards a culture of collaboration instead of competition suggest a new economic and political interpretation of the act of designing.

This new paradigm reveals an incipient role for design as an act of shaping society by enabling self-organisation, producing platforms of exchange, and empowering networks of grass-roots production. The emergence of the open-source movement; the arrival of affordable micro-manufacturing technologies; the explosion of hacker and maker culture; the democratisation of technology through projects like Arduino and participatory platforms such as Kickstarter—all point to an ideological shift away from established conventions of consumerism and the inception of a new understanding of design’s role within society, one in which end-users are no longer merely passive consumers but active agents. For the first time, the prospect exists of an equivalency of influence between the strategies of states or corporations and the tactics of individuals, and in response, established structures of power are quickly evolving. In many ways, design is now the theatre of a fast-moving conflict over society’s future, and the search for a new language of design is the struggle for the establishment of a new, networked commons.

Welcome to the age of adhocracy. As the opposite of bureaucracy, adhocracy cuts across accepted conventions and power structures to capture opportunities, self-organise and develop new and unexpected methodologies of production. It inhabits the horizontal, rhizomatic realm of the network, in which innovation—resourceful, subversive, anti-dogmatic, spontaneous—can come from anywhere.

A large part of our research and sketching on Brickstarter has been about finding the seams, or breakpoints, of bureaucracy and the limits of the network-fueled crowd. In other words, we’re interested in the space between bureaucracy and adhocracy. One of our hypotheses is that there’s an awkward gap between the ten of thousands (and occasional millions) in which most crowdfunding currently lingers, and the hundreds of millions (or even billions) that mark the price tag on the things that bureaucracies were built to handle.

The numbers are more succinct: The cost of Helsinki’s ongoing metro extension is $1 billion. The most successful project ever funded on Kickstarter raised $10 million. If those same 69,00 digital watch fans wanted to build a metro they would be on the hook for $14,000 each.

But don’t take this to mean that we’re being conservative or pessimistic about the potential for networked, or peer-powered, approaches to making big decisions together. No, we’re as committed as ever, and our interest in the gap between bureaucracy and adhocracy is about knowing both in their full detail. We’ve been trying using the Brickstarter project to understand the texture and grain of the dark matter that is bureaucracy, and then doing the same with community groups who are proactively trying to make things happen in their own neighborhoods. The exhibition was a nice impetus to distill our exploration into short texts.

Our presentation in Istanbul is organized into a series of five provocations. One poster each on The Crowd, Dark Matter, Design Probes, and Open Questionsand the fifth is a life-sized diorama. We’ve re-created a fictional desk from Helsinki City Planning’s offices to help viewers feel the frustrations of the status quo.

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It started with a sketch like this.

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Plan view. That’s the desk on the bottom right corner there.

With the diorama portion of our installation we are trying to evoke the difficulty of current decision-making for both sides of the system, bureaucrats and citizens. Being on the receiving end of endless NIMBY complaints without the power or tools to have a more productive discusion is eminently frustrating. Likewise, to feel as though input, positive or negative, goes into an abyss of unread email is equally difficult.

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Elevation showing the raised desk and other scene-setting accoutrement such as the coat rack and clock.

The surface of the desk is raised just above eye height so that visitors are forced to speculate about what’s happening on the unseeable desktop. Or, as Tom Waits put it, what’s he [sic] building in there?” What’s on the desk, front and center? What is the fictional bureaucrat doing instead of responding to messages from their constituency? We don’t know, of course, and don’t have a way to find out, really. This is the exasperating experience of tumbling through dark matter, made real and livable within the gallery. Tall people: no cheating!

Building the diorama involved creating some key props that would exude the unloved environment of a municipal back office, starting with the ever present kahvi mug.

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Left: original mug, printed on demand in a local mall. Right: the first pass at ageing the mug with over-strong coffee, sandpaper, and some whacks with a screwdriver.

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None of us expected that we would be mummifying a coffee mug in coffee-soaked paper towels as part of our work at Sitra. This turned out to be less effective than we expected. The microwave worked much better.

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The final product. It’s overplayed, to be sure, but it should look about right from afar.

The laser printer that’s sitting on the desk will be spewing a collection of real complaint and suggestion emails from the Helsinki metropolitan area. If all goes well, over time this should result in a messy pile on the floor. Visitors will be invited to file them in provided inboxes. We’ll see how many do.

Further updates once the exhibit is installed down in Istanbul. Unfortunately we’re going to miss the opening due to our HDL event happening on the exact same days. Maybe someone will drop by and take some pictures for us. The show is up October 13-December 12th if you happen to be passing through (or living in) Istanbul.

Check back this week as we post the provocations. The first one will appear Monday.

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