Timelab – Experiments with New Organisational Models

When I visited Timelab in 2012, it was a organisation which was working with two distinct communities: international artists, and a mostly local community of ‘makers’.

Since then, the Timelab core crew has taken a bold step further by radically changing the way they operate. The new organisational logic has been inspired by holocracy, alternative business development models, agile software development methods and various other concepts. This change has allowed many barriers to disappear – the artists and makers form one community instead of two, and there is a great amount of transparency in all the activities.

This blog post offers some glimpses to the way Timelab operates, based in the discussions I had with Eva de Groote and Evi Swinnen.

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This is the Timelab manifesto (a rough translation):

Timelab gives examples of small and big changes. These inspire and trigger dialogue, and encourage development of new models. Timelab offers time and space for reflection on a complex society in transition. More

Ice Rainbow Castle in Liisanpuisto

Ice Rainbow Castle in Liisanpuisto

A little winter hobby project -

Inspired by the example by a family in Edmonton we decided to build a ‘rainbow igloo’. We made a Facebook event 10 days prior to the event and several families decided to join in the effort. Each family brought 10-20 bricks (water mixed with food/water colour frozen inside juice/milk cartons) and amazingly the construction process took only a couple of hours!

We did not make a roof (to keep the construction safe) and we extended the form to a spiral, so that more people could fit in. At many times there were only small kids building the thing, parents did not have a chance to interfere ;)

‘Snowcrete’ (a mix of snow and water) turned out to be great building material, easy to handle and strong when it freezes. The temperature was around -7 celcius which was probably quite perfect. The final result has approx 300 bricks, looks great with candle light inside in the evening and not bad in sunshine either…

Here are some photos -




Lovely, blossoming Helsinki!

Carpe diem! Fishermen on Baltic sea, 29 Feb 2012

A snapshot of the grassroot arts, culture and democracy action in Helsinki – if I could clone myself, I could participate in all these events today, on 29 February 2012:

# 9:30 am – workshop & code-camp day of Avoin ministeriö
Avoin ministeriö (‘open ministry’) is a grassroot project that aims to offer help for Finnish citizens to make proposals for changes in Finnish legislation (starting on 1 March 2012, any proposal that can gather 50 000 supporters will be taken into consideration)

# 2 pm – Launch of a new independent think-tank & online media Laitos

# 4 pm – Opening event of ‘Sosiaalinen Hub’
A temporary, open, collective workspace in central Helsinki for grassroot actors – an experiment that will last for a couple of weeks:

# 6 pm – Mushrooming studio network
Brainstorming ideas for how independent artist / designer / cultural worker studios could collaborate:

# 6 pm -Brainstorming neighbourhood democracy

# 5:30 pm (-until late) – The afterparty of Avoin ministeriö + celebration of the new citizen initiative law

# 6 pm – Utopian realities
Performing arts collective Todellisuuden tutkimuskeskus (‘Reality research center’) will kick off ‘Utopian realities’, their main project for next two years:

# 7 pm – Maailmanpoliittiset Diplo-iltamat
Celebrating the latest issue of the translated Finnish version of Le Monde Diplomatique, thinktank Laitos, the day of social rights, etc.:

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…and these are just the events that I happen to be aware of, there are probably many other related events going on as well.

It’s great to be here and participate in all this flourishing energy! ;)

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.

Climate Hack workshop

During the three days that our brave Cotton Candy experimentation team spent enclosed in a small room in Collegium Hungaricum Berlin, we learned quite a few things:

- Cotton candy is a challenging material to work with. The temperature has just high enough for the sugar to melt but low enough for the plastic candy machine itself not to melt. If one wants to use color effects, these need to be applied beforehand – once sugar is reached its fluffy and flying cotton candy form, it’s very difficult to apply any extra effects to it. Refilling the machines on the fly (when they are hot and rotating sugar at high speed) was also not a very easy thing to figure out.

- Cotton candy is great material for art about environmental issues – it’s made of pure white sugar that gives us pure solid energy to burn. Very efficient and very unhealthy. The sugar we bought in Germany said ‘Made in Germany’ in the package while it’s obvious that it has been grown by some low-wage workers in Africa or South-America. Eating cotton candy is also a ritual, a ceremony associated with places such as circuses or fun fairs -  places that have been designed for the kids to have fun and for the parents to… pretend to have fun?

- Compared to the English words cotton candy and candy floss, the Finnish and French equivalents ‘hattara’ and ‘barpapapa’ are more interesting and versatile. The word hattara can be applied to all kinds of fluffy things (clouds, hairdos, etc) and it has a connotation of superficiality. In addition to Barpapapa comic book characters, barpapapa also means ‘daddy’s beard’.

Some of the concrete results (see photos above) we achieved were the Cotton Candy Tornado (Aleksi Pihkanen was the main chef), Cotton Candy Crystals (by Christopher Baker) and the ‘redemption ritual’ (design by Tuomo Tammenpää). These were the side effects of the main purpose of the workshop: to bring an interesting bunch of people together to hack, chat and have fun for a few days. Thanks a lot for crew of Kitchen Budapest and for the good times and for Transmediale 09 for hosting us!

>> More thoughts + photos in Tuomo Tammenpää’s blog
>> More photos by Miska Knapek
>> Climate Hack wiki

(>> original posting on Pixelache09 blog)

Self-organisation survey

Boxwars @ Pixelache 2008 (photo by Antti Ahonen)

In connection with Pixelache 2008 festival, we made a survey about organisational strategies of some prominent grassroot initiatives. We received replies from these people / organisations:

- Ben Fry & Casey Reas / Processing
- David Cuartielles / Arduino
- Douglas Repetto / Dorkbot
- Damien Deadly / Boxwars UK

The questions were:

* What are the aims of the project you are involved in?
* How is the project organised?
* How do you support the work financially and what impact does this have on your project?
* What do you feel you have achieved, and what are the problems you face?
* Are there any past projects/models which have inspired you?
* What are your hopes for the future?

Some excerpts from the survey:

* How do you support the work financially and what impact does this have on your project?

Casey Reas & Ben Fry / Processing: We’ve made a conscious effort to keep money out of the project. We don’t take donations, sell anything, or put ads on the site. We don’t make money directly for working on it and we hope that sets the example for others to contribute. We both have other jobs to pay for our food and rent. We were fortunate to receive a grant early in the project that was used to pay for a few developers to write key components of the software. Last year, Ben received a personal grant that provided some concentrated time to focus on the project. Our web hosting is thankfully donated.

* Are there any past projects/models which have inspired you?

David Cuartielles / Arduino: Before I was member of a design collective called Aeswad, based in Malmo, Sweden. There we had a pretty anarchic way of dealing with projects, deciding how to be paid, etc. The financial model we had was really thought through and helped me to understand that distributed organizations need of a completely different degree of freedom that corporations do. On the other hand I could learn how to make (a lot of) money making the things I like the most and letting the others do the same.

Distributed strategies for world-wide organizations can actually provide a way of living to their members. It is just that nobody will explain you how to make it happen. There is no business school focusing on that. Corporate is a cancer we gotta eliminate from society if we are about to make this new way of thinking/living/working possible.

* What are your hopes for the future?

Douglas Repetto / Dorkbot: I try to stay kind of neutral about the future of dorkbot. As organizations grow they often develop self-protection mechanisms, and sometimes maintaining the organization becomes more important than the actual activities of the organization. If dorkbot is no longer useful or interesting in a particular city, then we just let it die. Sometimes it comes back in another form, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t try to revive meetings or put any pressure on people to continue meeting. I will keep doing dorkbot in New York as long as it’s interesting and people keep volunteering to give presentations. But there are lots of other organizations doing similar things to dorkbot, so I’m sure that if we go away other things that are just as useful/interesting will take its place.

I’m constantly working to understand how something can seem to be both the most important thing in the world and also completely inconsequential. That’s my primary organizational strategy!

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The self-organisation survey can be found here: