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Essay of the Day: Prototypes for Open Source Urbanism

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
5th August 2014


What would a city look like if its infrastructures were designed, built, certified, and managed by its residents? Cities worldwide are witnessing today a transformation of their infrastructural and material landscapes. In the name of ‘open technology’, ‘open hardware’, or, more broadly, ‘open source urbanism’, citizens are wiring the landscape of their communities with the devices, networks, or architectures that they deem worthy of local attention or concern. From community urban gardens to alternative?energy microstations or Wi?Fi networks, open source hardware projects wireframe the city with new sociotechnical relations.

* Article: The right to infrastructure: a prototype for open source urbanism. Alberto Corsín Jiménez. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2014, volume 32,

A summary of this very important article from the abstract:

“This paper develops an analytical framework to place the rise of open source urbanism in context, and develops the concept of the ‘right to infrastructure’ as expressive of new ecologies of urban relations that have come into being. It describes, first, a genealogy for open source technology, focusing in particular on how open source urban hardware projects may challenge urban theory. It moves then to describe in detail various dimensions and implications of an open source infrastructural project in Madrid. In all, the paper analyses three challenges that the development of open source urban infrastructures is posing to the institutions of urban governance and property: the evolving shape and composition of urban ecologies; the technical and design challenges brought about by open source urban projects; and the social organisation of the ‘right to infrastructure’ as a political, active voice in urban governance. In the last instance, the right to infrastructure, I shall argue, signals the rise of the ‘prototype’ as an emerging figure for contemporary sociotechnical designs in and for social theory.”

Excerpted from Alberto Corsín Jiménez:

“What would a city look like if its infrastructures were designed, built, certified, and managed by its residents? Cities worldwide are witnessing today a transformation of their infrastructural and material landscapes. In the name of ‘open technology’, ‘open hardware’, or, more broadly, ‘open source urbanism’, citizens are wiring the landscape of their communities with the devices, networks, or architectures that they deem worthy of local attention or concern. From community urban gardens to alternative?energy microstations or Wi?Fi networks, open source hardware projects wireframe the city with new sociotechnical relations. Such interventions in the urban fabric are transforming, and even directly challenging, the public qualities of urban space. Public spaces become technomaterial artefacts that citizens take upon themselves to service and maintain.

This paper develops an analytical stance to place the rise of open source urbanism in context. It does so by surveying, first, the genealogical and conceptual purchase of the open source movement. Next, it moves to explore the concomitances of an open source urban hardware project in the city of Madrid, developing in the process a theoretical space for the novel epistemic work that such ‘prototypes’ (as I shall henceforth refer to them) are seen to be doing.

In brief, the argument focuses on three challenges that the development of open source urban infrastructures is posing to the institutions of urban governance and property:

(1) Conceptually, projects in open source urbanism are populating urban ecologies with novel—digital and material—entities and interfaces whose emergence destabilises classical regulatory distinctions on what were hitherto deemed public, private, or commercial property forms, technologies, and spaces. Who and what is urban space made up of when its equipment and infrastructures are open source?

(2) Technically, open source urban projects are built on networks of expertise and skills that traverse localised boundaries. Decentralised communities working in open source projects have to reach prior consensus over the methods, protocols, and standards to be applied. These decisions often generate new designs, techniques, and rules for certification.

(3) Politically, open source projects are transforming the stakes in and models of urban governance. In an open source project a community assumes political and expert management over its infrastructures. Such assumption by local communities of the governance of infrastructures is straining the social contract that state administrations have traditionally subscribed to as overseers of urban equipment.

Building on recent developments in social anthropology, social studies of science and technology, and urban studies, here I aim to offer an original analytical framework for the study of open source urbanism as a novel expression and assemblage of public and collective action, one which I tentatively name a ‘right to infrastructure’.

I have coined the term ‘right to infrastructure’ to echo deliberately Henri Lefebvre’s famous notion of the ‘right to the city’ (Lefebvre, 1996), which has become more recently an emblem of urban social movements worldwide (Mitchell, 2003; Purcell, 2013). However, as I develop it here, the right to infrastructure is neither a human?centred ‘entitlement’, part of what may be thought of as human?rights approaches to urban social justice; nor an object or device whose novel (say, sensor or network) capabilities ‘claim’ recognition in an urban ecology. It is neither a right to infrastructure, nor an infrastructure made right. Rather, the right to infrastructure allows us to escape the human–nonhuman and epistemology–ontology dichotomies altogether by opening up the agential work of infrastructures as a source (an open source) of possibilities in their own right.

Central to this idea of open source urban hardware projects as expressive of a right to infrastructure is their status as ‘prototypes’. The prototype, as I shall refer to it here, is an emerging sociomaterial design for our contemporary whose main quality is its permanent ‘beta’ condition; that is, whose social and material components retrofit each other as being in mutual suspension (Corsín Jiménez, 2013). The example par excellence of a sociotechnical prototype is free software, where the infrastructure (code) is self?grounded by the very collaborative effort that sets it in motion (Kelty, 2008). I shall return to the notion of the prototype later again in the argument. For the time being, let me note that this peculiar ‘prototyping’ status of open source hardware projects also offers a provocative port?of?call for documenting the emergence of novel ecological assemblages in urban contexts, in particular the work of ‘expressive infrastructures’ mediating digital, material, and social relations (Thrift, 2012). The analysis of open source infrastructures allows thus for an original approach to the study of the technical and social assemblages that have come to be known as ‘sentient’ or ‘cyborg’ cities (Gandy, 2005; Shepard, 2011a). Furthermore, open source urban hardware projects also offer a novel point of entry into ongoing debates about the status of intellectual property and patent forms under rapidly shifting regimes of informational capitalism (Biagioli et al, 2011), in particular as they affect claims over emerging ‘urban commons’ (Harvey, 2012).

The rest of the paper is in three parts. In the first part I briefly situate the ascent of open source hardware within the larger genealogy of the free and open source (F/OS) movement, in particular the rise of F/OS software. Here I do not aim so much to produce a deep historical or comparative survey of developments to date as to point to some of the key debates surrounding the political and technical implications of open source projects, for some of these questions affect profoundly how urban ecologies are modulated by certain infrastructural developments.

In the second part of the paper I describe different dimensions of an open source urban project in Madrid. This is based on over two years of ethnographic fieldwork with a variety of self?described open source architectural collectives in the city. The description includes a recent turn of events where I have myself participated in a reinscription of certain open source infrastructural projects as educational initiatives in the city. Overall, I place the project within a recent current in urban studies that pays attention to the wiring of novel sensor capabilities and network capabilities into emerging ambient and sentient ecologies, and I inquire into how these ecologies may be modulated when the processes through which they are inscribed and wired remain open ended.

I bring the argument to a close in the last section by outlining some of the challenges and disruptions that thinking with and through open source infrastructures is likely to pose to urban and social theory at large.”

Alberto Corsín Jiménez continues on Open Source Infrastructures:

“The open source movement has drawn considerable attention of late. ‘Openness’ has become a favoured slogan for describing the epistemic pressures and transformations undergone by the political economy of knowledge and technoscience in the age of informational capitalism. Thus, whilst some authors have argued that the structure of digital information—in particular the negligible costs of reproduction—instantiates a de facto regime of superabundant or ‘open knowledge’ (Foray, 2006, pages 172–179), others have drawn attention to the enclosure of such informational commons by existing proprietary regimes (Boyle, 2008).

However, as Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom have pointed out, it is worth remembering that access to information depends to this day on the maintenance and management of complex infrastructural facilities. Their suggestion is to think of information not as a superabundant commons but as a common?pool resource (Hess and Ostrom, 2003): a resource that requires storage and preservation, and over which one must define rights and rules of access, extraction, exclusion, and alienation (Hess and Ostrom, 2006, page 7).

Whilst the economic and political underpinnings of open knowledge are on the whole well understood, there are fewer studies of the cultural practices and social organisation characteristic of such initiatives. In this regard, the aspects of the new economy of open knowledge that has received most commentary to date is its grounding in novel organisational forms, in particular so?called peer?to?peer networks of collaboration (Benkler, 2006). The common view here is that peer?to?peer decentralised networks are blurring traditional distinctions between production, distribution, and consumption of informational forms. In this economy, users themselves become producers of content (so?called ‘prosumers’), and cooperation becomes the economy’s main, if not only dynamo (Benkler, 2011).

Although the organisational qualities of F/OS software projects have been much commented on (Ghosh, 2005), in?depth or ethnographic studies of F/OS cultures are much harder to come by. Chris Kelty’s (2008) historical and ethnographic account of the development of free software has already become a classic in the field. Kelty has suggested that communities of free software developers may be conceptualised as ‘recursive publics’: a form of public sphere where the architectural framework for debate and exchange is self? grounded in the very activity of writing, editing, patching, or recompiling the infrastructure (code) that programmers work with. In a recursive public, technology is deployed “as a kind of argument, for a specific kind of order: [free software developers] argue about technology, but they also argue through it. They express ideas, but they also express infrastructures through which ideas can be expressed (and circulated) in new ways” (Kelty, 2008, page 29, emphases in the original). The notion of a ‘recursive public’ offers, then, a very useful analytical framework with which to rethink the nature of politics when the infrastructures of participation are themselves open to (self?)modulation.

Gabriella Coleman’s recently published ethnography of the ethics and aesthetics of hacking similarly draws on long?term anthropological engagement with free software programmers (2012). Whilst Kelty draws attention to the structural innovation that ‘recursivity’ brings to public sphere theories, Coleman focuses instead on the cultures of liberalism that hacking enacts. According to Coleman, the toils and pleasures of hacking reveal a contradictory and tense relationship with (American) traditions of political liberalism. Hacker attitudes and work routines simultaneously challenge and take residence within liberal conceptions of freedom, labour, and intellectual property. Thus, whilst some hackers work towards protecting individual autonomy from intrusive corporate behaviour, others promote an experience of autonomy and freedom that rejoices in the virtues of sharing and learning. And yet other programmers take pleasure in the culture of transgression that characterises certain underground hacker practices (see also Coleman and Golub, 2008).

These innovative ethnographies of F/OS projects have shown how interventions in the domains of technology and property may also be conceptualised as interventions in the domains of collaboration and social and political invention; indeed, how these in fact subtend all politics as infrastructural politics. There is a historical lesson worth briefly rehearsing here, about the proprietorial and sociological frameworks and traditions that such infrastructural politics has contributed to exposing. According to Fred Turner (2006), digital utopianism, hacker ethics, and the political economy of peer?to?peer collaboration are long?term developments from Norbert Wiener’s interdisciplinary postwar experiments in cybernetic philosophy (1989), and in particular from the do?it?yourself, environmental, and ‘homebrew’ computing countercultural movements inspired by cybernetics. In this reading, the philosophy of cybernetics is deemed responsible for laying the conceptual ground for talking of ‘informational exchanges’, virtual communities, or digital economies of cooperation more broadly. It has contributed to the understanding of open source information as a political technology.

It is hardly coincidental, therefore, that the original impetus and advocacy for free software as a nonproprietary technology took root in the context of such countercultural movements. For indeed what first sparked the creation of free software licences—and has remained the most important cultural and political innovation in free and open source (F/OS) projects over the past thirty years—was the status of ‘openness’ as a proprietary object. The creation of the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) by Richard Stallman in the 1980s, which is the original and archetypical licence on which F/OS software programmes run, marked the first time that copyright law was hacked by the invention of a ‘copyleft’ licence (Kelty, 2011). But the controversy surrounding its original development is echoed today in almost all debates concerning the legal status of digital objects (Gillespie, 2007).

These include discussions about the intangibility, materiality, and legal agency of software and digital objects; the distinction and/or breakdown of the idea–expression dichotomy; and the ensuing problem of adjudicating between creativity, collaboration, and shared practice in software development. What is a copyrightable object (code, firmware, binaries)? Who are the (collective, individual, relational) subjects of rights? And how do these various distinctions map onto political, social, and ethical categories (the public domain, freedom, the commons)? These are all controversial debates that have been sparked anew by the digital revolution (Biagioli et al, 2011).

The study of open source urban hardware projects is part of these debates, posing a formidable challenge to—and spurring considerable innovations in—property forms and law. For in most countries the licensing of designs in open hardware projects falls under the jurisdiction of patent law, not copyright law.

Unlike F/OS programmes, open source hardware projects produce tangible outputs— artefacts, devices, machines. According to the Open Source Hardware Definition and Statement of Principles, what makes a piece of hardware ‘open’ is its design process (OSHW Draft, “Definition of free cultural works”, http://freedomdefined.org/OSHW). It is the design, not the object qua object that remains open. This makes open source hardware fundamentally different from F/OS software, in that design and output do not coincide in the same object.

In software the code is the design and the infrastructure; in hardware, the tangible output is assembled from the design. In other words, the source of openness in open source hardware is the design. The design of an open source hardware project encompasses therefore both the design of its hardware and software and the documentary record of its design process. That is, one needs to make explicit how (in what formats, files, stages, languages) the process of design is described, documented, and published. Step by step such documentary registry spells a methodology of design. Hardware design documentation includes, for example, mechanical drawings, circuit? board layouts, photographs, and descriptive texts. There are many layers to a design, and open source hardware projects require that every native component of a design be rendered ‘open’, or that if a portion of the design is not released under a F/OS licence it be made clear.

An important consequence of the role played by the methodology of design in the standardisation of an open hardware project is its legal affordances. Open source hardware licences are generally limited to controlling the circulation of design documents and have no purchase over manufactured objects. In open source hardware, then, the method of design is turned into a social form with proprietary effects: that is, the organisation of the network of collaborators; the material qualities of components, formats, and layers (photographs, sketches, code); and the methods of description and documentation are all entangled in the social process of making or hacking property. Property is not the outcome or output of a design process, but the very design process itself. The question of what is open—and how the process of opening it up is carried out—when the underlying object is hardware rather than software, remains, therefore, a hotly contested issue, and one about which little is known to date.”

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