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Making the Traditional Powerful: An Interview with Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer

"As long as there are enough people speaking up about something and getting themselves organized, it can result in change."—David van der Leer and Maria Nicanor

Crowdsourcing and open-source urbanism have the sound of the future—and they may be the future—but their roots go back a long way.

This is one of the more striking things I learned from a recent conversation with Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, the curators behind the BMW Guggenheim Lab.

Maria and David both cited global theorist Saskia Sassen’s August 2011 talk at the Lab not only as one of the inspirations for the open-source theme but as a reminder of past examples of the sort of citizen-based, community-making interactions that have the potential to take place on a much larger scale online; as a reminder that there are human models for navigating the digital future.

David recalled Sassen’s reference to a group of residents near Riverside Park in the late 1970s who gradually discovered that simply by walking their dogs at the same time of night they could make the park theirs, creating a safer environment. “Without realizing it, they were organizing themselves,” said David. “This was basically open-source urbanism before people were thinking open-source urbanism.”

Maria soon came up with another example, also from Sassen’s lecture: “She was talking about the power of the abuelas, the power of the grannies. And I thought that was fantastic, because that was there before. They all sat, you know, in their little square with their four chairs, and talked for hours, and knew what everyone was doing in the neighborhood or in the building.

“But it was not captured anywhere, and it was not augmented in volume anywhere, and now you have the power to do that. So long as you do it in a meaningful way, it’s making something traditional powerful through a new platform.”

That platform of course is digital technology, with its unprecedented capacity to receive and transmit data, to map and measure, to provide a channel for expression, to coordinate and communicate and bear witness to public action.

Based on what they learned at the Lab, Maria and David have defined open-source/participatory urbanism as a dual phenomenon: a trend toward community groups and neighborhoods as the starting point for urban change; and growing recognition among governments, academics, and professionals that crowdsourcing and open-source data can be powerful tools for creating new city designs, solutions, and ways of governing.

The basic principle, David said: “As long as there are enough people speaking up about something and getting themselves organized, it can result in change.”

When I asked for examples of open-source urbanism in action, David and Maria cited a number of them: the wildly successful Urban Garden Registry begun by the group Futurefarmers in San Francisco, for instance; or Mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s campaign to change the perception of public transportation in Bogotá; the mobilizations in Tahrir Square, in Madrid, in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere; the proliferation of transportation and other apps designed to augment our use of public systems; and, to an extent, the Lab itself.

“We’ve talked a lot in the Lab about how we don’t need to discard technology, we just need to make it ours better,” said Maria. “Crowdsourcing helps you make technology yours in a more meaningful way, but it’s also a platform for what otherwise would be unplanned actions. It serves as a platform for natural behavior, it finds a platform for organization, so to speak.”

David and Maria curate projects on architecture and urban studies, and they made it clear that they don’t see crowdsourcing as the end of expertise, nor as a sufficient resource to, for example, design a building.

“At this point I think the design is not always the most important element in the development of the built environment,” said David. “Throughout so much of the 20th century, everything was driven by a strong longing for an improvement of urban life through design; in this case it’s sometimes more about, ‘Okay, what are the practicalities that are needed or would be preferred, and how do they fold together?’ And in the end that may turn into design, but I don’t think any conversation today has to start from the design angle only, which I quite like.”

“That’s why it’s called participatory urbanism,” said Maria. “It’s less about the design of a building and more about urbanism and the use of public space.”

There are, of course, obstacles. Among what passes for crowdsourcing at the moment, said Maria, much is relatively meaningless. “You see it in programs on TV. You see it on the news. ‘Talk to us.’ ‘Let us know,’” she said. “And it has to do with who you’re reaching. If you don’t reach the crowd that will be using the project, is that meaningful? No, because then it becomes a bulletin board of everyone’s opinion.”

David was recently in Mumbai, laying the groundwork for the Lab’s residence there in 2012–2013. He spent a lot of time traveling throughout the city and as he did so he began to wonder whether the Lab and similar citizen-centered projects could get beyond the level of public programs and actually have an impact on the powerful—governments, legislators, and developers.

But there are, he realized, promising signs. While in Mumbai he met with Sheela Patel, founding director of SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres) an organization that works to organize slum dwellers around India and the world.

“Sometimes it is through the Internet, other times it’s through telephones,” said David. “In some cases it is really about bringing people together physically and organizing the funding. And I thought it was quite fascinating: slums do not need to be isolated situations. If slum dwellers organize themselves tightly—and even between different cities—they can become quite effective in getting their voices and ideas heard. To me, it is inspiring to see technology and media be used this way.”

Lab Notes I is a series on trends from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The eight-week series will focus on four successive trends; the first is the Rise of Open-Source Urbanism.