Thoughts from the Pixelache workshop on urban commons and the citizen toolkit

The theme of the Pixelache 2014 festival was this year The Commons. We were kindly invited by organisers Andrew Paterson and Nathalie Aubret who decided it would be interesting to include the urban and Helsinki commons theme to the festival. We were very excited by the prospective and developed a 3 hour workshop proposal for Camp Pixelache on 7th of June 2014. Camp Pixelache took place in Vartiosaari, an island in eastern Helsinki, with just a few building structures. The City of Helsinki wants to develop it so that it becomes a full blown residential area for up to 7000 people. This has of course sparked some controversy and a grassroots protest movement. Needless to say, Vartiosaari was the perfect place to discuss, reflect and act upon the commons.

Vartiosaari

The general theme of our workshop was that of the urban commons, with a particular emphasis on toolkits. The workshop title, “Toolkits for the commons / Toolkits as commons” refers to one aspect of the urban commons that is somehow more difficult to grasp than the physical urban commons or the digital ones. This third aspect of the urban commons is in our opinion everything related to shared knowledge regarding how to maintain and support the physical or digital urban commons. We can think for example of “how to” guides, descriptions of best practices, or sets of tools, which all support citizen self-organization around urban issues. We have for the past two years been working on the idea of a citizen toolkit, and have even implemented a first version in collaboration with the Helsinki Neighborhood Association, Helka ry: http://www.kaupunginosat.net/kansalaisen_tyokalupakki/

Lately, we also experimented with a lighter version of the toolkit, which would simply be a collection of existing tools, publicly shared on an online curation tool, such as Scoop.it: http://www.scoop.it/t/kansalaisen-tyokalupakki-kevyt-versio

Finally, we had also discussed, through our interviews with a series of urban activists in Helsinki, the possibility to create a distributed toolkit by proposing to use a specific hashtag on social media. We decided to investigate further the relevance of these different options during the workshop.

The aim of the workshop was to cover the following three points:

1. What additional tools should the toolkit comprise? (Why are they relevant?)

2. What kind of tags/categories would best describe the toolkit and its tools? How can we start a collaborative practice to use relevant tags e.g. in social media?

3. How to make the toolkit accessible to a wider audience? How to keep it alive?

We ended up being a group of 30 people taking part in the workshop. Participants came from various backgrounds and disciplines: independent artists, architects, researchers, and citizen activists from different parts of the world, all sharing an interest in the theme of the commons. We discussed a lot and collaboratively gathered ideas related to the three issues we wanted to cover.

 

The main results of the workshop were the following:

1. Additional tools to the toolkit

We first briefly went through some of the tools that exist in the Helka ry citizen toolkit (e.g. the Urban Mediator), and well as in the light version on Scoop-it (e.g. Prototype Helsinki’s guide to citizen activism and the Artova model website). Participants noted that there is a wide variety of existing tools that could be added, which address issues that go beyond clear cut urban planning or even the organization of happenings in urban space. For example, many of the tools mentioned related to ecological and sustainable living as well as sharing culture. The kuinoma.fi facilitates the lending and borrowing of all kinds of objects and tools, so that one doesn’t always need to buy them. The satokartta.net platform makes it easy to share spots one knows in the city where one can forage herbs, or collect edible fruits, berries, and mushrooms. Additionally, the Helsinki Timebank (http://stadinaikapankki.wordpress.com/) facilitates the process of exchanging services through the use of time as currency. Social entreprise Yhteismaa ry is also planning a new platform, Nifty Neighbor (http://mesenaatti.me/en/nappi-naapuri-valittamisen-paikka/) where it would be possible for neighbors to exchange services.

The Wikiversity platform (http://fi.wikiversity.org/wiki/Etusivu) was mentioned a good tool for sharing best practices and know how in general, and could be used for urban related issues as well.

The commons.fi website was mentioned as it deals with the commons. The website also contains an open discussion platform (yhteisalusta), where anyone can start or join a discussion related to the commons.

Finally, in addition to digital tools, happenings and networking events were also mentioned. These included the urban living fair (http://urbaanitasumismessut.fi/) organized by Dodo ry, which focuses on ecological urban living, as well as the upcoming Social Innovators Connected (SIC) conference (http://socialinnovatorsconnected.org/info/), which will bring forward the role of social innovation and its link to developing urban culture and citizen participation.

In addition to existing tools, ideas were shared regarding new tools that could be developed. For example, in terms of food sharing, ideas like creating a sort of virtual public fridge to share food, or a free distribution center in collaboration with the city would be useful. Best practices from different countries could be collected and shared. Then, some tool(s) for sharing practical tips on how to do things would be useful. Someone even mentioned a “phonebook of solutions”, maybe combined with how to and step-by-step guides based on personal experience. Of course, the power and easiness of Google search should not be forgotten when thinking of a collection of resources, which could eventually be distributed rather than forcibly brought together under one platform. Another challenge regarding sharing best practices and how to’s is the efforts needed for creating the documention. What would be the reward for doing this? One particular case where such best practices and how to’s would be needed, is in the area of legislations, such as asking for permissions from authorities to do something in the urban space.

2.  The #tag and categorization strategy

The use of relevant categories and tags for the tools was closely related to the third issue of how to make the toolkit accessible to a wider audience. The main points discussed were:

– The relevance of the toolkit in general: the participants were divided whether the whole toolkit idea was relevant or not. Those arguing for, saw it as a necessary instrument that can facilitate citizen action. Those against, said that the problem is not about tools, but rather about issues. One can search for tools only after the issues are identified.

– The problem with the current name, “citizen toolkit” (“kansalaisen työkalupakki” in Finnish): some participants, especially the Finnish speaking ones, felt they did not relate to the term “citizen” (kansalainen). They saw themselves as people, or even proponents of urban culture, who did not want to be defined as citizens. It was difficult to decide about another name though. The DIY city-toolkit was appreciated by some.

– The impossibility of being fully inclusive and the necessity to have varying  strategies to reach different groups: although we aim at reaching out for a maximum number of people with the toolkit, it can’t be fully inclusive. The issue of those who are not online was raised and the importance of traditional media, such as radio, was brought up.

– The challenge of documentation and sharing best practices: the Artova-model has been successful in asking activists to document their best practices, but this has required a lot of effort. Other activists said that it is hard to document and report about the experienced processes due to time constraints and lack of incentive.

– Ideas for a hashtag: #DIYcity

All in all, the workshop was successful as a networking event as well as a discussion forum. We did not manage to achieve clear action points to follow, but some included the need to start a Facebook group on the subject of urban commons and the toolkit. We also loosely agreed to try out the DIYcity hashtag (though now in hindsight, I would rather suggest we use DITcity, i.e. Do It Together city, as inspired by Fredrik Åselund: https://www.kkh.se/video/Aslund.html). The workshop also brought forward the need to rethink the whole concept of the citizen toolkit. Should it be kept as the original idea that we researchers and Helka ry had, meaning a collection of tools that can support citizen self organization in issues related to urban planning and urban happenings? Or should it expand to cover urban ecology and the sharing economy and culture? Should it target the urban commons as a overall umbrella? Finally, many of the international participants noted that it would be useful to have international versions of either the toolbox or the hashtag. It is not yet easy to answer these questions, but one thing is sure, is that the more conventional understanding of citizen participation in urban planning is being challenges by new ways of being active in cities and wanting to be involved in the shaping of cities and urban culture. Interesting new collaborations between citizens and authorities are forming and it will be exciting to follow what will happen next. It will also be interesting to explore how glocal strategies for citizen engagement will develop and how best practices develop across the globe.