In late June 2018 I spent a week in the City of Mexico (CDMX), to support the municipal government with a variety of foresight related challenges, through its Laboratorio Para La Ciudad (City Lab).
The Lab was founded and is led by Gabriella Gómez-Mont, as the experimental arm / creative think tank of the Mexico City government, reporting to the Mayor. It is highly innovative in its techniques and strategies for urban development.
“The Lab is a place to reflect about all things city and to explore other social scripts and urban futures for the largest megalopolis in the western hemisphere, working across diverse areas, such as urban creativity, mobility, governance, civic tech, public space, etc. In addition, the Lab searches to create links between civil society and government, constantly shifting shape to accommodate multidisciplinary collaborations, insisting on the importance of political and public imagination in the execution of its experiments.”
During the week I worked with the Lab’s Open City team, Gabriela (Gaby) Rios Landa, Valentina Delgado, Bernardo Rivera Muñozcano and Nicole Mey. I came away super impressed by their work, commitment and creativity. The work I was asked to do was highly varied and engaged a number of my specializations:
- To run a visioning workshop with Lab people and key stakeholders to develop a vision for an Open City for CDMX, that could help guide city development in an inclusive and participatory way.
- To deliver a talk on “Democratizing Design” in which I discussed some current “revolutions” in design and cosmo-localization from the perspective of the P2P Foundation.
- To run a design session to develop an anticipatory governance strategy for the application of artificial intelligence in CDMX.
- In addition I gave presentations to the Open City team on co-governance and the city as commons, vision mapping and the anticipatory experimentation (bridge) method.
Needless to say it was a big week!
For the visioning workshop, we started by using a technique called “vision cycles”, which is a way of mapping the history of an issue, but in such a way as to discover the previous visions that have informed development (what might be considered “used futures”) as well the current vision and its effects, and what ideas for the future are emerging. After this we did a short visualisation process that helped everyone to picture the future city in their minds eye. We then used the integrated visioning method first developed by Sohail Inayatullah, where we looked at the preferred future, the future that was disowned, and then developed an integrated future.
One of the insights from the session is that cities have many selves, and it is worth interrogating what are a city’s dominant selves and what selves have been disowned. When a self is disowned and has no avenue for expression its behaviour shows up as undermining, disruptive, agitative. If the contradictions between the dominant self of a city and its disowned self is not resolved, then conflict can ensue. The integrated visioning method provides a way of seeing that can appreciate how the integration of the dominant and disowned selves of a city can lead to more wholistic or wiser development.
With an issue like artificial intelligence, there is not only great uncertainty regarding the potential impact on society, there is also definitional ambiguity as AI crosses many definitional boundaries (is it machine learning, neural networks, algorithms, robots, automation, etc), and the speed of the issue seems to be accelerating. Given this, the Lab was tasked with developing a set of policies for how this polymorphous issue is managed and governed. For this they asked me to apply the Causal Layered Analysis method of Sohail Inayatullah, and then to use the Anticipatory Governance Design Framework I have developed to provide the building blocks that can form an Anticipatory Governance framework for artificial intelligence. Needless to say the workshop was rich, exploring some of the core assumptions, worldviews and attitudes guiding people’s thinking, and new myth and metaphors that provides genuinely empowering pathways.
In addition to this I gave presentation on some of my favourite subjects.
Co-governance and the city as commons. This was more a conversation than a presentation, and to be honest they taught me much more than I was able to teach them. This conversation was one of the biggest learnings for me. First of all they were already familiar with the work of Christian Iaione and Sheila Foster (and others) on the urban commons. In particular while they appreciated the perspective on the urban commons, they questioned its translatability from the Bologna / Barcelona / Ghent context (small-medium sized cities, politically empowered population in Europe) to CDMX (24 million people, highly stratified between wealthy / empowered and poor / marginalised). They also felt that the spirit of CDMX resists monolithic prescriptions and wondered where / what opportunities exist for heterotopic futures, plural futures within the city … rather than a single / monolithic city vision. CDMX exhibits spatial diversity, a city with myriad groups, colonias, spaces, but also exhibits temporal diversity, where the pre-colombian civilization is layered and meshed into the colombian and global / neoliberal – thereby resisting the monoculture of linear time. The future cannot just be framed in modernist terms, it needs an ecology of visions.
Dovetailing with this is the concern with the somewhat trendy roll out of smart / digital city strategies that have the intention of making a city open and participatory, but which some felt have the opposite effect, they empower the people that already have power in a place like Mexico City. It became clear to me from the conversation that a truely “Open City” can only be one where core inequalities are dealt with. Poor people struggling to survive will never experience a city as “open” so long as they must toil for less than a living wage, and in which suburb by suburb segregation has been all but institutionalised along wealth lines. In this context CDMX’s historic crowdsourcing of their constitution was an important precedent, and in which Universal Basic Income was put forward (however apparently could not get through the legislative process).
In this context I also presented the core principle of implicated commons-governance, recently developed in this paper with Michel Bauwens, which I consider to have simple but radical implications for democratization of all aspects of life. (pre-print can be viewed here).
“This notion of ‘common concern’ serves to expand the scope of what is a commons and who is a commoner. In the case of planetary life support systems, the value of this as a commons is fundamentally implicit in that it does not appear valuable to a community until it is activated by virtue of a contextual shift. For an issue as fundamental as climate change, it is the personal awakening that we all share an atmosphere with seven billion other humans (and countless species) as a commons of concern. Through the accident of circumstance each of us have been ‘plied into’ this shared concern of the twenty-first century. The planet’s atmosphere has thus shifted from an implicit commons to an explicit commons. Our atmosphere has become a matter of survival for all, and suddenly people have become commoners to the extent that they see how they are entangled into this shared concern, with a concomitant responsibility for action. This implies a radical democratization of planetary governance.”
This principle of implicated commons-governance did resonate with them and we had a long discussion on how this might be applied in CDMX.
Vision Mapping and the Anticipatory Experimentation (bridge) Method. I also presented my work on vision mapping, the combination of visioning processes and online editable mapping based on open street maps and the map interface. One of the Lab teams were already using OSM for a project and there was considerable overlap in the use of participatory methods to map urban geographies and imaginaries. As well I presented on the anticipatory experimentation (bridge) method, which was very consistent with the overall approach to the Lab, as they are explicitly an experimental arm of the city government tasked with charting new pathways for CDMX’s urban futures.
I presented on cosmo-localisation at a coworking space called wework, hosted by FabCity CDMX and Futurologi, where I got to meet Oscar Velasquez and Igna Tovar. With around 50-60 people I had chance to show off my bad spanish and my perfect spanglish. I spoke on a theme I’ve been developing with my colleagues through the P2P Foundation.
I described cosmo-localization as:
“… the process of bringing together our globally distributed knowledge and design commons with the high-to-low tech capacity for localized production. It is based on the ethical premise, drawing from cosmopolitanism, that people and communities should be universally empowered with the heritage of human ingenuity that allow them to more effectively create livelihoods and solve problems in their local environments, and that, reciprocally, local production and innovation should support the wellbeing of our planetary commons.”
Later that week I did a podcast with Inga Tovar where we discussed design global manufacture local / cosmo-localization, a collaboration between Centro Uni and Futurologi. This was a more relaxed conversation on the subject, conducted exclusively in spanglish (I attempted to speak in Spanish for the audience but had to revert to english again and again and get Inga to offer translations). Audio here.
Impressions and reflections
Overall I came away very impressed with the city of Mexico as a whole. From crowdsourcing a new constitution (perhaps the biggest experiment of this kind to-date), to becoming one of the first Latin American regions to make itself LGBT friendly, to its attempts to create a universal basic income, and of course the work of the Lab, CDMX, despite its many social problems, is an oasis of intelligence and progressive politics. I got the feeling that the city is on the cusp of a renaissance and potential transformation. That is my hope for the city’s many people, most who struggle day by day for survival.
For CDMX the promise of commons governance and Cosmo-localization is really about the ability of Mexico city’s poor to be enfranchised rather than marginalised at a number of levels. In terms of co-governance and the urban commons, it is the principle that those that have a stake in the development of CDMX need to be given the practical ability and tools for making decisions about their city. In terms of cosmo-localization it is liberating the potential for any enterprising community to be able to produce was they need for their wellbeing and livelihoods.
My own interest in working in CDMX stems from family history. My mom was born in the Colonia Roma, and she spent her first 12 years there before immigrating to the US with her mother and sisters. I grew up hearing stories with CDMX as the backdrop, not all pretty ones either. For my mom and her family, life was hard, they were very very poor, and they struggled day in and day out for survival. This has a distinct imprint on my sense of identity. Despite my relative privilege as a travelling consulting futurist, for the purposes of CDMX I know that I am the son of a mother who came from the harshest poverty, and that in another life I am one of “los de abajo”. For my mom and her family, “moving up” for them was working as maids for the wealthy in central Mexico city. It feels as if, because we suffered from inequality and the stigma of poverty, it is something that we know too well must be addressed to fulfil the promise of the city. The disowned must be integrated into the future of the city for all to flourish.