Brickstarter in the news

As you may have noticed, we’ve been in summer mode during July which means that posting was light. Luckily we had Maija join us before the summer, and she was able to prepare a series of fact cards that have been popping up every week. We started with a survey of initiatives here in Finland and over the coming weeks Maija will be expanding it to look at things happening further afield, perhaps in your neck of the woods.

While Finland has been on holiday, most of the rest of the world has not, which means that things like this are happening:


Tim Maly of Wired wrote up a nice piece on Brickstarter which is run on Wired.com and Wired.co.uk. Dan and I enjoyed the interview with Tim, which took the form of a shared Google Doc, and it prodded us to get down on the page some of our more current thinking about the project. In the coming days we will be updating the Brickstarter introduction post. Here’s an extended bit from that conversation:

Tim: This is my basic understanding of Brickstarter. It’s about creating a platform to allow people to DIY at a neighbourhood level, making it easier for people to engage with city services and bureaucracy. Is it correct?

Bryan and Dan: Brickstarter is about creating a platform to make urban activity easier than urban activism, one that supports YIMBY over NIMBY, and helps us shape and build the city we want, in partnership with our communities and with the city’ administrations. It makes it easier for DIY at the neighborhood level to be conducted in public, and acts as a better interface for people to engage with city services and bureaucracy. Those city services can be in turn shaped by this engagement – so it is a learning platform for the city’s administration as much as its people.

Helsinki, like many cities in the rich world, is enjoying a boom in urban activism presently, from cycling to gardening to recycling to social entrepreneurship. This activism often occurs on the periphery, in the legal gray areas where there’s nothing to mandates a definitive “no”, but also no clear process for how to get an initiative off the ground, how to get a “yes”, and even what a “yes” can be. There’s a mismatch between the kinds of things that citizens are interested in doing today and the institutions that we’ve inherited from the past. This mismatch means our system is leaky, with potential value to society leaking out in a number of ways.

Take foodtrucks for example. When a city gets its first foodtruck there’s an inevitable hiccup as the city’s existing permitting process, its organization, and, really, its conception of the world does not include something shaped like a food truck. Is it a restaurant on wheels? Is it a car that serves food? Is it a tasty piece of street furniture? Do our citizens want this on their (our) streets? Really?

That confusion typically translates into cost to the activist or entrepreneur who ventures the idea first. Unlike the business world where there’s often a first-mover advantage that comes in the form of financial return, there’s not usually much compensation for being the first person to slog your way through a bureaucratic headache. You are working against the grain of the city’s bureaucracy, which can take a long time – hence cost. Most people prefer to forget about it as quickly as possible and get back to the core of their passion, be it the communal garden or local energy production or what have you. What happens in this situation is that the tacit knowledge of how to navigate a particular idea through the system stays tacit and never becomes part of the shared pool of knowledge. That’s ‘leak’ number one. In effect, the same new knowledge is being re-created again and again as different entrepreneurs confront and find their way around the same difficulties. As we know from the boom of the tech community over the last decade, everyone can be more effective if those learnings are shared via public forums, blogs, etc.

To figure out how to make urban projects happen, there can be a huge amount of time and effort spent negotiating with and waiting for yesterday’s decision making apparatus to catch up today’s interests and desires. This is why some of the most exciting urbanism these days comes in the form of pop-ups and temporary installations, conducted parallel to or outside of the institutions of everyday life. In effect, they try to route around the problem, often using decentralised or non-hirearchical forms of organisation – again, familiar from the tech community. So some sidestep bureacracy altogether exploit loopholes and grey areas. Dodging, as it were, the “dark matter” of governance and legislation, that imperceptible substrate that either enables or blocks. Whereas others head into that dark matter, sometimes never to be seen again. So the pop up is a valid tactic, particularly in terms of getting things done.

But what pops up must pop down, and here we find the second ‘leak’ in the system. Pop-ups, when done well, can be a potent way of visualizing and prototyping what Steven Johnson calls the adjacent possible. But by virtue of being outside the system they generally also don’t push the system to adapt in positive ways. Temporary interventions might open the door to the adjacent possible, but they don’t allow us to step through. When pop-ups inevitably pop down the city snaps back to the way it was before, waiting for another hero to come along and show us what their version of the future looks like. They’re a valid tactic but not a valid strategy.

We are interested in “systemic change” – so for us, a popup must change something fundamental or systemic i.e. it must change the rules, the city’s operating system. It must be more than a hack, which simply creates a temporary event – but a rewrite. This is why it is so difficult, of course, as most cities do not think in terms of operating systems, hacks and rewrites. They tend to be more stolid, impermeable.

Brickstarter proposes that a healthy 21st century city has to have a more explicit pathway for citizens to move ideas from activism to activity. This means that we have to make it easier for individuals and groups to make proposals about the built environment, to collect financial and in-kind support for those proposals, to conduct the work in a more public way (so there’s a history or source code that others can learn from more easily), and to make it easier for cities to support initiatives that are aligned with their own strategies. This last point is the third ‘leak’.

As cities face increasingly tough financial situations we predict that they will seek new resources, which means city governments will attempt to encourage particular types of development and activity that reduce direct costs (like involving neighborhood residents in light maintenance in exchange for more say about how their environment is designed and built) or increase shared-value such as enhancing the social capital of a community.

Importantly this shouldn’t be interpreted as being about about savings costs and outsourcing responsibility, but also it provides the city’s administration with a learning engine – and not just on the desires of its citizens (not all of which should necessarily be acted on, of course) but also on the way it needs to *be*. Brickstarter should provide clues as to the attitude, stance and behaviour of a 21st century administration – again, the operating system, as well as the applications that run on it, and then what is created with those applications.

The Wired piece set off a bit of a chain reaction. Grist anointed us saints! That may be a bit much, but it’s nice to see the project resonates with so many people and is another reminder of why we are developing the project as much in public as we can. The Atlantic Cities blog picked it up too. ArchDaily previously asked, Can You Crowdsource a City?

Some of the older posts have been spurring conversations as well. Conducting our research for this project in public means that it can be a more fluid, two way conversation. When we post something like this discussion with Rodrigo Araya, for instance, we find that he replies with a post of his own! Dan’s discussion with Marcus Westbury was also replied to by Marcus himself.

We appreciate this because it gives us a chance to see the ideas reflected back to us by the people that we’re interviewing, not to mention the fact that it’s expanding the reach of our project by introducing it to others and, in Rodrigo’s case, in other languages.

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One comment on ‘Brickstarter in the news’

  1. Beau Harbin says:

    I am so ready to bring Brickstarter to my town. I can see applications for this in lots of things we are trying to do. Such an awesome idea. I hope you are ready to roll it out soon. Best of luck!

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