Debtocracy: how big part of the Greek national debt is illegitimate?

If you are not familiar with the term ‘odious debt’ then I would recommend for you to watch the Debtocracy documentary film. The first part of the film gives a general introduction to the credit-driven global economy and the accumulation of Greek debt. Things get more interesting at approx 33:00 when the concept of odious debt is introduced, followed by examples of how countries like Equador have been able to write down most of their national debt.

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The new era of ‘non-disciplinarity’?

Slush 2011: Shut up and grow – Mark Zuckerberg

A quick summary: this rather long blog posting deals with structural changes that are currently going on in cultural funding organisations and other institutions, how they are trying to get rid of different specific disciplines in the name of ‘innovation’.

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The decision to name the new Aalto University School as ‘Aalto University School of Arts and Creativity’ came as a shock for many people. This new university is a combination of University of Art and Design and the architecture department of University of Technology. According to press release, the new name was needed since “the concept ’art and design’ in the current name has strong associations with the past”.

The petition to reconsider the name bring up some of the grave problems that arise from choosing such a vague name for a university. This blog posting tries to deal with this one: “A degree/research with an ‘arts & creativity’ school does not point out to any specific skill or knowledge in any specific discipline”.

One could say that ‘it’s just a name’ – that having a new name for the university should not cause any significant problems for the art, design and architecture community associated with Aalto University. But there is more at stake here than just the name – as stated in the Aalto press, the name symbolises the “amalgamation and the multi-disciplinary nature of Aalto University”.

The transformation that is going on in Aalto University resembles the process that already took place in Nordic art/culture scene and the on-going process to change the structure of Art Council of Finland. These ambitious endeavors try to deal with genuine problems and respond to changing times, but it seems that the captains of this process are not sure about how this new ship should be navigated. In fact, a key aspect seems to be that the captains should let go of their control – that academic and cultural institutions should eagerly respond to the whims of darwinistic forces such as trends in international business. If this is the case, then my prediction is that instead of becoming more innovative and competitive, the institutions will just focus on short-term goals and try to imitate what others are doing.

The Nordic ‘utveckling’

In the Nordic region, there used to be four organisations dedicated for specific forms of art – Nifca (contemporary art), NordScen (performing arts), Nomus (music) and Nordbok (literature). In the end of 2006 these organisations were closed down and replaced by Nordic Culture Point, an organisation which administers several funding programmes. The ones who were lobbying for shutting down the old organisations had the opinion that in today’s world the barriers between disciplines have become so blurry that they should no longer be enforced by administration.

The biggest one of the funding programmes is the Culture and Art Programme which in 2011 will give out 2 032 930 EUR of funding. The keyword of this funding programme is ‘utveckling’ – ‘innovation’ or ‘development’. Projects which are new (have not been started yet) and have some innovative quality (the applicants can themselves explain how they are innovative) can receive funding. I know this programme pretty well since I was a member of the Art and Culture Programme Expert Committee between 2007-2009.

This new system has two clear benefits. Since many organisations were closed down, the money that used to go to salaries of people can now be used to support individual projects. Also, a larger variety of organisations can receive financial support, as long as they create a project that does some ‘utveckling’.

But there are also downsides. Previously, there used to be organisations which were lead by experts of a specific discipline. These people were active contributors to their own fields. If you had an idea you could go and have a chat with these people and similarly if there was a problem, it was clear who was in charge.

In the new system all this is different. Nordic Culture Point is made up of administrators who just have to focus on administration – they have specifically been denied any comments or contributions to the funding decisions. Also the members of the Expert Committees cannot take any active role – they are not supposed to be in touch with the applicants and it’s not possible to appeal against individual decisions. So, in terms of an agenda related to a specific discipline, there is no one who you could talk to. This is understandable since the new system is not supposed to have any such agendas. It’s all about ‘utveckling’ and a few other concepts such as ‘communication’ and ‘Världen i Norden – Norden i Världen’ (‘The Nordic Region in the World – the World in the Nordic Region’).

The other problem is that there is no longer any support for longer term processes. If you manage to get support to realise a project and it turns out the be a success, it is not possible to get support for the continuation – it’s no longer new and thus no longer about ‘utveckling’. There is another Nordic culture foundation – the Nordic Culture Fund – but they also only support individual, one-off projects.

One could say that a third problem is that the expert committee does not have expertise to handle applications coming from many diverse disciplines of art and culture. The current expert committee seems to have strong biases – out of 8 people there are two theatre directors and two people focused on music. But in the logic of the new system this is not a problem – since knowledge of a specific discipline is no longer necessary for making decisions.

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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.”

From http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/may/18/information-wants-to-be-free

FRAMEN sulkeminen – jotain mät(t)ää ministeriössä

FRAME:n ennenaikainen sulkeminen on vahva ykkösehdokas vuoden typerimmän kulttuuripoliittisen päätöksen tittelin saajaksi. Sulkeminen on ennenaikainen siinä mielessä, että FRAME:n tilalla jatkavaa uutta säätiötä ei ole vielä edes perustettu. On ilmiselvää että ensi vuonna toimintaan tulee useamman kuukauden tauko, jonka mielekkyyttä on hankala perustella.

Yksi FRAME:n uudistamiseen olennaisesti liittyvä dokumentti on äskettäin ilmestynyt Suomen kulttuuriviennin kehittämisohjelman 2007-2011 loppuraportti. Raportissa puhutaan paljon ‘brändäykseen liittyvistä tarpeista’ ja ‘kulttuuripalvelutoiminnan kehittämisestä’. Jostain ihmeellisesti syystä ministeriössä ei olla tajuttu että FRAME on brändi sekä kotimaisesti ja kansainvälisesti merkittävä palvelu. Tämän palvelun katkaiseminen epämääräiseksi ajaksi ei tee hyvää FRAME:n, Suomen tai kenenkään muunkaan brändille. Kaikkien osapuolien kannalta olisi ollut parasta, jos nykyinen FRAME olisi voinut jatkaa niin kauan että uuden säätiön toiminta on saatu konkreettisesti käyntiin.

Laura Köönikkä & co ovat saaneet vuoden aikana FRAME:n hienosti uudestaan jaloilleen ja kuvittelisi että tällaisen positiivisen, ammattitaitoisen toiminnan merkitystä osattaisiin ministeriössä arvostaa. Näin ei ilmeisesti kuitenkaan ole.

Toisaalta, en tiedä pitäisikö olla enemmän huolissaan ministeriön sähläämisestä vai siitä, että taidekenttä tuntuu hyväksyvän tämän päätöksen varsin hiljaisesti. Jos mitään vastalauseita ei kuulu niin päätöksentekijät jäävät siihen uskoon että kaikki menee ihan hyvin.

Kaikki, joita FRAME:n toiminnan katkeaminen tulee suoraan koskemaan, voisivat ilmaista huolensa asiasta vastaaville henkilöille eli selvitysmies Rauno Anttilalle (rauno.anttila (at) minedu.fi), ylijohtaja Riitta Kaivosojalle (riitta.kaivosoja (at) minedu.fi) ja viime kädessä ministeri Paavo Arhinmäelle. Ehkä tällä tavalla uudistamisprosessi saisi ministeriössä sen ansaitseman huomion.

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 publiclaboratory.org 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, publiclaboratory.org 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’. Publiclaboratory.org 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 publiclaboratory.org, 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.

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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.

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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 / openp2pdesign.org) 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 openp2pdesign.org 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 weloveopendata.com blog.

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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.