Blog posts in English

Helsinki WDC programme announced

Most of the Helsinki World Design Capital 2012 programme was announced today and this will help us to focus the activities of Alternative Design Capital. The details of the programme can be found from this pdf (6MB, available in Finnish only at the moment).

What became clear from the official announcement event was that the cities themselves want to open up and in the context of Helsinki WDC they have initiated many projects that they wouldn’t normally be engaged in. This is very positive. It’s also positive that the project brings together cities of Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Lahti and Kauniainen. The mayors of these cities were the main stars of the event and they gave their own quite distinct views on Helsinki WDC project.

The main problem of Helsinki WDC can be found by studying the programme pdf in more detail. A great majority of all the contact persons mentioned are from big institutions: cities, universities, libraries and big companies. Many of these projects also involve small companies, non-profit organisations and individual people, but it is the big institutions who have the upper hand in the process and it is them who also get the main credit. So, for ADC it’s important to focus on supporting small, independent initiatives and voices.

I also appreciated the comments given by mayors of Espoo (Jukka Mäkelä) and Vantaa (Kari Nenonen). Jukka Mäkelä said that Helsinki WDC should engage the citizens better and also should aim for stronger and bolder visions in terms of city planning, involving the best designers. He was referring to the time when car-free Tapiola garden centre was planned in 50s and 60s – that we should think how this vision should be upgraded to correspond to today’s world.

Concerning the design challenges in Vantaa, Kari Nenonen dared to mention also issues that are not easy and positive, such as high unemployment rate, segregation and ‘syrjäytyminen’, the fact that for various reasons many people have become isolated from the society. These are examples of complex problems that cannot be fixed with a single design solution but require a lot of collaboration between various actors in the society.

Here are the key slides and the mayors:

Information wants to be free, but on the other hand…

I just learned today that when Steward Brand said ‘Information wants to be free’, he also said something else:

“Information wants to be free” (IWTBF hereafter) is half of Stewart Brand’s famous aphorism, first uttered at the Hackers Conference in Marin County, California (where else?), in 1984: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”


Will data gathering make the world a better place? (IBM Thinks so)

During the Mobilityshifts week in NYC, I also has a chance to check out the IBM Think exhibit at Lincoln Center. The reason why I went there was that I had heard about visualizations for the massive Data Wall which Casey Reas & co had created. The wall was indeed impressive and children seemed to enjoy playing with it.

IBM Think exhibit / Data Wall

It turned out that the simple information boards opposite to the Data Wall had some quite intriguing content. These boards contained a vision of a Happy Future, with all the improvements that sensors, surveillance and data analysis will bring to our societies. Reading the promises felt like taking a time trip back back to the days 1939 New York World’s Fair that introduced many wonders of consumer devices (including IBM’s electric typewriter).

In context of ‘Healthier rivers’, the Hudson River was chosen as the example. In collaboration with IBM, Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries and Clarkson University are in the process of creating a real-time sensor network all along the Hudson River.

Coincidentally, Hudson River was also one of the sites where citizen science projects are taking place (see my previous posting). The goal of these two projects is essentially the same – to get better information about the state of the river in order to improve its condition. But in the approach there are drastic differences:

  • IBM & co use complex and expensive technologies, tools are free or very cheap
  • Based on a recent press release, IBM & co aim to ‘advance commercialization of emerging real-time river monitoring sensor technology’. tools are free and open source

In addition to these rather obvious differences, an important issue is what kind of opportunities are lost if river monitoring is left to the hands of big institutions. In case of, the tools offer people a concrete way to learn more about their own surroundings and to take an initiative to improve the conditions. Who is more likely to make noise about the companies that pollute Gowanus Canal, the local activists or IBM & co?

In terms of design, the question is whether there is a standardized solution with centralized monitoring or a general instruction which is modified be the local people to suit the local context.

A striking example of the difference between these two approaches that was often discussed during Mobilityshifts were the Adequate Yearly Progress tests that all children in public schools in US have to take. This test was introduced as a part of the No Child Left Behind Act during George W Bush administration. The goal ‘No Child Left Behind’ sounds great, but trying to achieve this goal via standardized tests has been a disaster.

Based on the presentations at mobilityshifts, everyone (teachers, children, parents, school administrators) seems to agree that these tests have not increased the quality of education, on the contrary they have added unnecessary stress to those who are doing well and been discouraging for those students and schools with problems. The points that were emphasised during mobilityshifts over and over again was that people learn in different ways. Good teachers adapt their teaching methods to suit the needs, and luckily here in Finland this is still possible (see Dianne Ravitch’s blog posting about this, her view is a bit too positive, but the main facts are correct).

Unfortunately in many other areas (public institutions, university education, etc) the idea of improving quality via standard tests has been pushed through here in Finland as well, with unhappy results (less efficiency, less creativity, less everything else except suspicion and bureocracy).


Citizen science: healthier trees and more confident citizens

Pollution in Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn (Liz Barry / PLOTS)

The Rigorously Unprofessional session at Mobilityshifts featured two really impressive projects, Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) and Treekit.

Activists are using the tools and methods developed by PLOTS to find out more about the sources of pollution that is constantly accumulating in Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. One of the key tools is balloon mapping, which is used during different seasons of the year to shoot high resolution aerial images of the area. There is also a tool for shooting infrared imagery. By comparing various images, activists have been able to identify a large number of pipelines which are not monitored by any authorities, in fact no one seems to knows what they are and what is coming out from them. Liz Barry spoke of ‘environmental headhunting’ – that these images could be used as legal evidence against corporations and other polluters.

Liz also wanted to emphasise that there is a difference between crowd-sourcing projects that have been initiated by companies and public authorities, and citizen science projects in which the agenda is set by people themselves. The tools created by PLOTS can be used for all kinds of purposes, even to purposes that the creators of these tools would not want to support. This was discussed often during Mobilityshifts conference – how citizen efforts can be re-appropriated to work against them.

Suspected pipelines found by activists in Govanus Canal. The one marked with red colour is the only one that the city authorities have information about.

The Treekit project has created tools for mapping the exact locations and gathering other useful information about trees that grow in cities. In New York these tools have been used by local people and the resulting dataset is much more comprehensive and accurate than what the park authorities themselves had before. The point of this activity is not just to gather information – the main point is that trees in urban context need nurturing, that someone has to take care of them. In certain areas of NYC there is a lot of pollution in the air and the trees are struggling. Giving them water on a regular basis already helps, some people have started doing this by using big buckets. Healthier trees means healthier air for people to breath.

Treekit is also connected to the ongoing milliontreesNYC project, with currently 499 517 donated, planted or adopted trees.

Treekit – The red squares are the exact locations and sizes of the trees, measured with Treekit tools. The round items are the locations of the same trees in a database used by the city park authorities. (Phil Silva / Treekit)

An interesting discussion followed, related to the transformation that happens when people start using these tools. One could say that these tools allow ‘non-experts’ or ‘common people’ to become ‘experts’, ‘researchers’ or ‘designers’, but the whole idea of a ‘non-expert’ does not seem to make much sense. Phil Silva (Treekit) emphasised the importance of being allowed to make mistakes, that people can start doing things before they have learned all the details.

To me it seems that instead of learning specific knowledge and expertise, the important thing that these projects can give people is a sense of confidence, a sense of authority, a belief that they can change their everyday surroundings. I guess this is what expertise in practice often is – confidence and authority.

Just another day in the park

Zuccotti Park, 14 Oct 2011, 7 AM

During my visit to NYC this week, I had a chance to visit the Zuccotti Park a couple of times. I was impressed by the way discussions and decision-making were arranged. The mood was friendly and jubilant.

It’s unfortunate that the recent discussion related to Occupy Wall Street has focused on the question WHO are the people in the park, or more precisely WHO has the right to be there. To me this question seems rather irrelevant – if Occupy Wall Street is a forum for political discussion then everyone should have the right, even a duty, to be there. Public square as a political tool is a very old invention, it was probably invented before the wheel.

As a my little contribution to the on-going discussion about the Occupy Wall Street movement, I wanted to shortly refer to some thoughts of political theorist / activist Hannah Arendt. I take the liberty to interpret her thoughts quite freely here:

In her most well-known book ‘The Human Condition’, she argues that we should make a distinction between three terms: labor, work and action. LABOR is related to our basic survival as species – we have physical bodies we need to take care of, we need to find food to eat, we need to copulate to produce new human beings. WORK is the way we modify our surroundings, how we create tools, products and services – how we act in our professional occupation. ACTION is the domain where we act as free citizens – the domain where we express our thoughts, the domain where by default we do NOT agree about things.

In the discussion related to Occupy Wall Street movement, these three perspectives tend to get confused. Related to LABOR, the argument is that the people on the square are too well-off: they are not the poorest, they are not the starving ones, so they should shut up and go home. Related to WORK, the ‘WE ARE THE 99%’ slogan has perhaps been more counter-productive than useful for the discussion: it creates a far too simplified idea of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.

Despite your position in the context of LABOR or WORK, you have the right and duty to be part of ACTION, to act as a citizen and participate in the political debate. EVERYONE should have the right to be at the square.

* * *

I visited the park this week on Wednesday evening, when there was a discussion about buying new equipment to handle the live internet transmissions. It was dark, cold, rainy and windy, but direct democracy was still functioning. A decision was made to spend $25 740 for new equipment.

The ‘stack’, ‘blocks’, various hand signals, the live transcript on a screen and foremostly the people’s mic – issues are discussed through a slow, detailed process (see Generally Assembled at #OccupyWallStreet). Some of the hand signals were in used in General Assemblies in Spain and other countries in Europe this summer.

This is NOT how decisions are usually made in everyday life – in schools, in companies, in politics. Occupy Wall Street is an important demonstration of how complex issues can be discussed and decided collectively. Many people have learned this lesson now and hopefully this will have a concrete influence in many big and small institutions where these people are based. I’m not saying that exactly these methods should be copied everywhere – there are also many other methods for implementing direct democracy.

* * *

In her book ‘On Revolution’, Arendt admires the way the constitution of United States was originally written through an elaborate, slow process that involved a large amount of citizens in all the different states. This is the ACTION that Arendt is talking about. It would be great if the constitution would be completely re-written on regular intervals, so that every generation could participate in this important process.

In the same book, she also writes about the ‘lost treasure’ of revolution. It is the exceptional spirit that arises during revolutionary times, the change in one’s being when one gets involved in a movement that wants to fundamentally change things. There is a lot of that spirit in the air at Zuccotti Park and a strong tendency towards ‘unity’ and ‘consensus’. In this sense the event is also a carnival – and it should be so. But if there is only ‘unity’ and ‘consensus’ then the event is just a carnival and no longer a political event. The important political issues are the ones in which there is no clear agreement.

Zuccotti Park, 14 Oct 2011, 7 AM


Alternative Design Capital – the first steps

The first ADC meeting

The first ADC meeting / Photo: Antti Ahonen

Some time ago I wrote a critical blog posting about the upcoming Helsinki World Design Capital year. This posting generated a lot of public discussion and now for some weeks there has been an on-going process to set up an Alternative Design Capital.

What will this Alternative Design Capital aim for and how will it function? We don’t know yet, the discussion about this has only begun. And it’s even unclear how decisions are made. The challenge is to find a healthy ratio between talking and doing, to keep the process open for new ideas but also to fix some key points that can help the project to focus and develop. ADC as an organisation strives to be open and democratic but in contrast to this, in context of design, democracy is most often not the best way to make decisions – this often leads to boring and safe solutions.

There was good energy and great discussions in the first meeting, please join us the second one on Wednesday 19 October 18:00 at HUB Helsinki.

Alternative Design Capital planning wiki can be found here.

Open Helsinki @ DMY MakerLab

I was invited to curate the Open Helsinki & Pixelache Helsinki programme for this year’s DMY MakerLab in Berlin. This was only the second edition of DMY MakerLab, dedicated for open design and makers culture.

DMY festival is pretty similar to many other big design fairs, but DMY tries to stand out from the others by emphasising critical and experimental approaches to design, as well as highlighting work done by graduating students and emerging designers. The venue is the amazingly massive Tempelhof airport and this year’s event attracted more than 30 000 visitors. So, it was noisy and busy, but the mood was friendly and relaxed. Most of the MakerLab workshops were well attended and especially the quick drop-in workshop worked very well, people were happy to stop for an hour or so to learn and do something.

Below you can find some glimpses of the Open Helsinki section (YKON Game, Low2No School of Activism, We*Love* Open Data and Massimo Menichinelli / and Pixelache Helsinki section (OHANDA open hardware initiative and Temporary photoElectric Digestopians Worklab by Bartaku).

Bartaku’s Temporary photoElectric Digestopians Worklab
fuses cooking with solar cell design. The resulting ‘e-tapas’ produce electrity, but also look & taste delicious. Here are some photos and Bartaku’s interview at WMMNA.

The YKON Game was one of the nominees for the DMY 2011 Award. YKON Game is a world simulation game for up to 30 -50 players, inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s World Game.

The Low2Now Camp
project brought a busload of urban activists from Helsinki to Berlin. During three days they hosted the Low2No School of Activism and explored the local scene in Berlin. More information and great examples of urban grassroot initiatives can be found at Low2Now Camp blog.

Massimo Menichinelli
from gave two presentations: ‘Open P2P Design’ and ‘Open P2P Design & Markets and business models for Open and DIY projects’. You can find the presentation slides here.

We*Love* Open Data
is a bunch of open data researchers and enthusiasts from Helsinki. This informal collective was formed for the occasion of DMY MakerLab but has continued its activities afterwards as well. During DMY the group managed to collect and visualize information about rental prices in Berlin. In addition, Miska Knapek presented some of his sculptures which visualize/materialize long time spans of weather data. More info at blog.

* * *

You can find more information about these and other MakerLab projects from DMY Berlin website. All the photos above (except the one from Bartaku’s workshop) can be found from my DMY Berlin photoset.

Tactical Media in 2001 <> Tactical Media in 2010

EPIDEMIC art installation in D.I.N.A event, 2001

This posting is an attempt to explore some connections between tactical media and citizen activism in 2001 and 2010.


Some more or less nostalgic memories from year 2001 -

In May 2001 I participated an event called D.I.N.A (Digital Is Not Analog) in Bologna, Italy. The event had been announced just a few of days before it took place, probably because the organisers didn’t actually want to attract too much audience, due to a very unusual lineup of presenters. Many of them had never revealed their real identities, they had only become known via their websites and alias names.


The ‘person’ I was most curious to meet was Netochka Nezvanova. ‘Netochka Nezvanova’ is Russian and means ‘nameless nobody’, a title and the main character of an unfinished novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The writings of the online Netochka gave an impression that she was one female person – even though it was quite certain that there were more than one person involved in her projects.

Netochka was famous/infamous for sending a huge quantity of emails to many international lists, using her own cryptic language. The postings were a mix of shameless self-promotion (for herself and her nato.0+55+3d software), philosophical ramblings and provocative comments about some well-known individuals in the net culture scene. Some of her websites were, and, and her writings gave an impression that she had her own anarchistic wordview and political agenda, but it was impossible to figure out what it was. Here is a small sample:

aprez - az laughtr g!vz ua! 2 konzum>tearz.
 + memor!ez r sk!nd al!v - ch!ldhood !z bloun
 through dze ruztle ov autumn leavez +
 celz [ue] reg!ztr !n un!zon dze magn!tude
 ov a s!ngl !mprec!z!e.
nn. tu!rl!ng. out ov s!ght. u!th!n u.
akt!vat!ng d!zturbansz !n sod!um-potass!um
 eku!ll!br!um akross neuron membranez.
apropoz = 01 agent = ov op!n!e ur =cw4t7abs reklama
 = luvl!. != made !t ultra publ!k tzo = muzt !osc!lat u!ldl!.
 he = thought ! = uaz tr!zte + angr! auss!. naja.
 !ch b!n ganz gluckl!ch + fre!. salut.

When it was Netochka’s turn to give a presentation, she sat down on a chair and placed some living snails on her gray dress. She continued by reading a poem and meanwhile the snails ‘drew’ an abstract ‘painting’ on her dress.

Netochka’s snails


Another invited presenter was Ricardo Domingues, one of the members of Electronic Disturbance Theatre. Ricardo gave a presentation about Virtual Sit-Ins, a method for organising online protests. The participants of a virtual sit-in would download an application that would send a large amount of requests to a certain website, eventually causing it to crash.

Ricardo also told about the Zapatista Air Force. The Chiapas government had been spreading a false rumour that the Zapatistas were planning ‘new acts of violence’. This rumour was used as an excuse to increase the governments’ military force in Lacandon jungle where the Zapatista army was supposedly hiding.

The local people responded by organising a demonstration, or rather an act of political theatre, by throwing paper planes over the fence of the military camp. They wanted to break the ‘sound barrier’ which the government had established between them and the soldiers. One of the messages said “Soldiers, we know that poverty has made you sell your lives and souls. I also am poor, as are millions. But you are worse off, for defending our exploiter”.

Inspired by this event, the Electronic Disturbance Theater released a software called “Zapatista Tribal Port Scan” which would repeatedly send a poem about the Zapatista struggle for peace to government’s servers, through the “barbed wire” of internet.

Ricardo Domingues


Mining in Congo

(Original posting on Pixelache site)

A couple of months ago I wrote about the new law related to mining in the conflict areas of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The minerals from these mines are important for various consumer electronics companies (Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, Nokia, etc.)

Swedwatch and Finnwatch have just released a new report about the effects that this law and other similar measures seem to have. Here are some quotes from the report:

“A lot of attention has been given to the fact that we all, as consumers purchasing personal electronic devices, are linked to the conflict in Eastern DRC. Many argue that we must demand that companies stop buying conflict minerals and so cut off  the funding of armed groups. Skeptics of the idea that ending the trade will stop the violence say it will only hurt an already extremely weak economy and make the local population suffer even more. They underline the fact that more than two-thirds of the revenue of a province like North Kivu is from mineral exports. Even though none of the NGOs or the legal initiatives actually promote an embargo in the sense of ending the mineral trade from the whole of Eastern DRC or even the whole of the DRC, many point out that it is likely to be the effect, especially before initiatives for a trustworthy certification schemes are in place. The local research-based Pole Institute is of the opinion that the dilemma becomes even greater when the mining industry is criminalized without offering an economic alternative to a possible boycott of these minerals.”

“One important question is whether it is actually possible today to source ‘conflict-free’ minerals from Eastern DRC. There are varying degrees of involvement from armed groups, just like there are also varying degrees of legality. IPIS estimates that for the time being is that there is not a single mine in Eastern DRC where there are no security problems at all. In other words, if there are very strict requirements regarding taxes to armed groups and no involvement of armed groups in the mineral trade at all, at the moment, it means it is not possible to source minerals from Eastern DRC at all. This is an option that Karen Hayes foresees could lead to more insecurity in the region: “Potential exclusion of mines from the traceability system with resulting loss of their legitimate market could have major impacts. This could leave mines with the options of (a) closure – resulting in loss of livelihoods, migration forced by economic need, new resource confl icts as miners try to find new sites, new debt as new sites are developed, etc; (b) continued mining and trading but with only illegal actors or buyers who are unscrupulous about their sourcing; (c) a move away from the restrictive tin/tantalum/wolframite market towards the more lucrative and secretive gold mines and markets where traceability is a huge challenge.””

“Although most of the interviewees were pleased with the fact that the three main parties in the debate on mineral resource exploitation in Eastern DRC – the Congolese authorities, private companies and civil society groups – were finally talking about solutions to the problems of conflict minerals and illicit mineral trafficking, there was some resentment about the fact that policy makers seemed to pay almost no attention to the socio-cultural context in which mining activities take place. A recurrent criticism of policy makers at the national and international level was that the latter seem to care more about the reputation of foreign companies interested in buying Congolese minerals than in the well-being of the people living and working in and around the mines. There was a widespread feeling that it was high time to tackle problems such as the use of physical violence, the establishment of predatory taxation systems, and the creation of illicit trade monopolies by military actors. In addition to this, it was also felt that policy makers need to do something about other mining related issues such as land rights, forced labour and sexual violence against women, that had only received scant attention.”

Consumer Electronics Industry and Mining in Congo

(Original posting on Pixelache site)

Coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a rogue industry that produces financial profit for the various factions of the on-going civil war. This issue has been discussed in artist/activist circles for some years already, but there have been no signs for any solution to this problem.

This situation unexpectedly changed last week, when US Senate passed a new bill that requires companies to disclose whether they are sourcing coltan or other minerals from the DRC or adjoining countries. Companies have to provide details about the measures they have taken to avoid sourcing these minerals from DRC armed groups, which are guilty of massacres and other atrocities. This means that companies like Apple, Dell, HP, Intel and Nokia can no longer wash their hands of this issue.

The move by US lawmakers can perhaps be partly explained by commercial motives. The fact that China has become the number one supplier of many important metals has recently raised concern in US and Europe (see article in New York Times). Increased transparency in mineral industry is likely to increase the mineral prices, and this might turn mining and other related industries into profitable business again in Europe and US.

Although the new law can be seen as a positive first step towards more fair consumer electronics, it can also have negative side effects. The new law might result in a complete boycott of minerals from DRC, which might make the local situation even worse. Also auditing the supply chains is a complex task and probably prone to corruption.

According to a report by Finnwatch, the raw materials from Congolese mines are traded by Belgian trading houses to ports in Kenya and Tansania. From there the materials are transported to Thailand, Malesia, India and China where the worlds biggest foundries are located. In the case of Nokia, after the foundry has extracted the metal, there are still 4 or 5 more middlemen before the metal ends up in a ready Nokia product. According to an article in Taloussanomat (in Finnish), Nokia requires their material suppliers not to use minerals from conflict areas, but the new law will require Nokia to do more extensive auditing.