Alternative.Camden will give people a chance to co-create the future

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In the wake of many A/UK explorations with Indy Johar and Dark Matter Labs we’re excited to witness the launch of Alternative.Camden (alt.cmd) - a civic tech experiment in taking back the future. Here Jack Minchella and Joost Beunderman explain the thinking behind this play on local democracy and business innovation.

“Growing digital monopolies, the creeping surveillance and monetisation of our personal lives, algorithms making decisions in ways most of us don’t understand. Technological innovation seems increasingly a means to operationalise and control us. This leads to some uncomfortable questions — for us as individuals, and for our cities.

The time to shape an alternative is now. An alternative in which we don’t see new technology as a threat — but as an opportunity for us all to discover a more equitable future. A key for unlocking our creativity as a society.

What if, instead of compressing the possibilities of our future into technologies like self driving cars or facial recognition, we took inspiration from vibrant initiatives like Restaurant Day — a spontaneous event that began in Helsinki, where once a year anybody can open a restaurant and sell their home cooking.

Enabled by social media and mobile technology, these types of people-powered events show us a different way for individuals and communities to have agency in the (re-)making of our cities.

Across the world we are seeing how our cities, neighbourhoods and lives can change for the better when people collaborate with creativity, passion and drive. Apps that bring us together for park runs, innovative community-led renewables, collaborations to reduce food waste, and open digital manufacturing workshops, show how combining technology and civic innovation can create a more inclusive society.

Rather than a means to control us, technology then offers a way to build a city that is more entrepreneurial, healthier and more fun.

At a crossroads: cities and future risk

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It’s never been more urgent to think about this. Because in contrast to the energy and dynamism in the civic economy and civic tech discourse, there is an overriding sense of discontent in how our cities function and how they’re shaped. To many, we’ve failed to create the urban future we promised each other and undermined the social contract we supposedly operated under: one founded on equality, justice, freedom and the idea that life would be better for each next generation.

Cities are now at a crossroads, as they show the compound effects of our broken growth model: increasing evidence shows that air pollution will impact people’s ability to learn and stay fit in later life; that loneliness can be as large a health risk as smoking; that we spend more on incarcerating than on educating some people; that our housing crisis is intimately connected to worsening mental health and that incompetent managers turn many people’s jobs into meaningless drudgery, holding back productivity growth.

And all this whilst the economic shock of automation is on the near horizon, forcing us to fundamentally rethink how we develop human talent in the future. Suffering under austerity and short-termism, are we really ready to respond smartly and strategically to Andy Haldane’s call to enable people to put their heart, as well as their head and hands into their jobs?

This ideal of democratising the ability to care for our work sits uncomfortably alongside the reality of ever-rising rents constraining the life choices of young people or mounting household debts twisting the arms of families. Systemic failures and a wholesale erosion of shared resources creates interlocking and self perpetuating cycles of growing future risk.

Given the sheer scale and pace of the transitions we face, clearly positive change cannot result from any single actor — be it government, councils, big business, start-ups or social movements — acting in isolation.

This forces us to rethink what we mean with words like innovation: from a narrow lense of ‘unicorn’ technology start-ups and venture capital investments, to an approach that recognises that all of us can be involved — both in imagining better cities and in discovering a new settlement between citizens, businesses, technologists and the public sector to get us to a more hopeful future. We need to take this to the next level.

Moreover as urban technology services are increasingly part of the systems people rely on every day, there’s more and more at stake in understanding the scale and scope of agile, digital regulations and service innovation both locally and nationally.

Whilst some inroads are being made at a national level (notably within civil service through the Government Digital Service), there are fewer resources to experiment and understand the nature of how this could play out at a local level, the governance models it could be tested under, and its potential to unlock a more human(e) city.

Introducing Alt.Cmd [Alternative.Camden]

That’s why today we’re launching Alternative.Camden (Alt.Cmd) — a new innovation district for London co-founded by Camden Town Unlimited,Euston Town, Dark Matter Labs, and Future Cities Catapult. Alt.Cmd is a test vehicle for prototyping a new type of economy powered by technology for the common good.

The goal is to develop a new type of local, democratic institution for innovation within the city. If that sounds like something you’re into, join this discovery.

In the wake of public outcry surrounding Sidewalk Toronto’s ‘neighbourhood from the internet-up’ (led by Google), we learnt that public legitimacy is not something that can be easily bought, but has to be hard-coded into how and why we build our future cities and neighbourhoods.

Places we can learn from — like Barcelona’s highly participatory open source iLab project — are already experimenting on this cross-over between technology and civic life. Especially in the context of Brexit, it is crucial to signal that London is pro-actively experimenting with tools and approaches fit for a rapidly changing world, yet at the same time, committed to much more inclusive, just model of how we get there.

Alongside projects like the Mayor’s Civic Innovation Challenge, Alt.Cmd will be an opportunity for London to test and develop its own collaborative, inclusive technology enabled models for change.

Our aims are to:

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  • Start new conversations about the technologies changing our cities through co-designed and co-hosted public events, workshops and publications (see more below about how to get involved);

  • Initiate practical experiments by prototyping civic technology across a range of issues. Some of these might be highly visible and intuitive, others might delve into thornier issues: ethical questions around deploying augmented reality in public space; new ways to raise funding for shared infrastructures like the Camden Highline based on voluntary data tracking of health and wellbeing; or a Universal Basic Income or Universal Basic Share pilot for Camden.

  • Set up regulatory sandboxes to explore how shared rules and regulations could evolve in response to new innovative technologies that require civic and regulatory oversight.

Overcoming a very 21st century kind of failure

The experiments are key to this project: it is through practical ideas-testing that real world issues, new technologies and new collaborative processes come together to show how we can re-organise ourselves to create better outcomes.

Like Pia Andrews’ amazing work in New Zealand and Australia, this serves a double purpose: creating direct impact by improving places and people’s lives, as well as providing practical starting points to articulate how we can change our governance mechanisms to enable such inclusive innovation more structurally.

And this is the heart of the matter: inclusive innovation cannot just be an economic growth strategy — it has to be about reimagining the very essence of how we govern and how we are governed.

As we have set out elsewhere, our governance systems display a very 21st century kind of failure: austerity and an ideological backlash against ‘red tape’ are affecting our ability to think about governance creatively and ambitiously just as a whole host of challenges, both local and global, is hitting us.

We’re being forced to rethink how we regulate in the domain of emerging technology and its interfaces with power and decision-making, privacy rights, supply chains and the future of work.

And we cannot do this by managing the status quo — which seems unmanageable anyhow. We have to bring deep intentionality to this in order to build a future based on the values we hold dear.

Clearly many possible futures create opportunities- not only challenges. New types of blockchain-connected sensors and smart contracts enable us to regulate noise pollution without losing more of our live venues altogether.

There could be new ways of complementing existing tax and business rates systems with different models that capture the value uplift generated by a wide range of shared assets — automation and artificial intelligence technologies will reduce bureaucratic costs to near-zero.

In some cases we’ll see new digitally-enabled processes — like dynamic real-time licensing — in other cases entirely new institutions, like the pioneering civic data trusts to enable citizens to be in the driving seat of what happens with their data.

In short, Alt.Cmd is a way of testing both the technologies and the underlying regulatory infrastructure through a civic process. This process will have to be creative and engaging, otherwise the risk is that to the great majority, these new ways of working will feel untransparent, irrelevant to their lives, or just too difficult to get involved in.

Fostering a shared culture of experimentation will itself require new approaches — we envision, for example, a Camden Open Sci-fi festival where anyone can explore radically different futures.

Get Involved

Alt.Cmd’s test-bed site includes Camden Town, Euston & King’s Cross. This area is a snapshot of London, being home to leading arts, culture and educational institutions, brilliant technology and scientific research organisations, and proactive and innovative local government. It’s a place where thousands live, visit and work everyday.

But it also embodies some of London’s most acute challenges: from rising inequality and housing unaffordability to chronic air and noise pollution.

We hope this approach will be picked up across other cities in the UK. To that end, we will work in the open to share what we’re learning, what works, and what doesn’t.

This mirrors how we intend to work locally, where we’ll work closely with local communities to involve them in emerging technologies and decisions that could shape their lives for the better.

It is up to us to remould the digital revolution we’re living through towards a radically more democratic, transparent and equitable future. We are still at the beginning of this journey, with some initial ideas about what this new open institution would be like.

This is the start of an open conversation about the future of innovation districts, of social and environmental justice, of participative technology and regulatory futures. If this sounds like something you’re into, let’s have a coffee.

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