MozFest 2021

Berlin Amsterdam Mozilla MozFest research prototyping

Repair tech at MozFest

In one week I will conduct the first public activity of my research project in 2021. It will be an open discussion during the Mozilla Festival, called "Universal Registry of Things - promoting the reuse of materials and objects in smart cities". This year the Festival will be 100% online, due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I write this text mainly to invite people who may be interested in participating or helping me facilitate the session (in either case, sign up here). It is also a summary of my research so far and current plans. I think it may also prove useful for those willing to participate in future phases.

Research focus

Since we started OpenDoTT in 2019, my research took the side of some brilliant thinkers and doers adopting a critical perspective on the mainstream narrative about "smart cities". The vision of making cities supposedly more efficient through the use of digital technologies never made that much sense. One should ask: "efficient for whom, and for what purposes?". Rather, I was more interested in using the planning and deployment of technologies in urban environments to trigger deeper discussions about power, inequality, sustainability and governance. Under those lenses, there is stark contradiction in every area impacted by smart city initiatives - surveillance and security, transport, lighting, infrastructure and others. When it came to narrowing down the research focus, I decided to build on my past experience with reuse and repair in community projects.

For some time it felt as though I was focusing on what is usually called waste management. Disappointingly, though, most if not all the references of waste management in smart cities fail to distance themselves from the vocabulary of efficiency. Collecting materials and making them disappear as soon as possible seems to be the only goal of such propositions. Even incorporating - with a grain of salt - ideas such as the "circular economy", it still felt unbalanced. As my first year went on I explored more and more of practices of repair and generous cities.

When the time came to start working on design concepts, I already knew I was proposing waste avoidance or prevention, instead of its management. In other words, the core of my work is about finding ways for society to identify the potential value of materials and ensure that they are not discarded - "wasted" - prematurely. I propose also that such value should not merely be extracted by super-efficient, hyper-mechanised international corporations, but rather be reverted to local society through collaborative configurations.

I dream of enabling the emergence of a reuse commons (embodied perhaps in multi-stakeholder cooperatives) aided by transformation labs supported by both public and private organisations. But that will take a while to develop, as well as resources, labour and political will. And I still need to finish a PhD at a school of arts and design before that. So for the time being I am working only on a slice of that future dream.

In essence, I am working on technologies for waste prevention through practices of repair and reuse to benefit local society. Hopefully towards the end of my research it will point to to urban infrastructure and policy for waste avoidance, governed democratically by local societies.

Note: a detailed account of my activities during the first year can be found in this post, as well as more extensively throughout my research blog.

Prototyping

What I will prototype in the coming months then is something along the following lines:

  • An universal registry of things, as originally proposed in this design concept: a public database with relevant information to reuse objects and materials. This is what we are discussing next week during MozFest, and I'll be documenting here. I expect the discussion to cover not only its technical feasibility as well as issues of intellectual property, legislation and governance.
  • At least one way for interested parties to interact with the universal registry of things. One can think of many ways to approach that - from a mobile phone app to an object the size of an ATM or vending machine installed in public places. I will probably stick to a piece of hardware about the size of a 3D printer to be installed on a workbench. I am tentatively calling it e-i, "evaluation interface", and will document its development here.

I may name the whole system consisting of the registry and its interfaces as "valudata", but still need to gather more feedback on that choice. There are very

Where to?

The exciting next phase of work will involve a demo of e-i developed in partnership with Officine Innesto, and hopefully a collaboration with an English artist on its form and shape, informed by an aesthetics of reuse (and, of course, gambiarra!).

I will also work in collaboration with a Scottish producer to create a video that situates the discussion, advances a speculative take on what this kind of technology would look like and how it would work, and links back to the discussion on smart cities. We've only started to brainstorm, but there are many interesting (and fun) ideas to explore already. One quick example: e-i as a voice-operated repair assistance bot:

"E-I, is this thing worth fixing?"

After the d├ębut at MozFest, I will also organise other online meetings and workshops to evolve ideas and experiment with possibilities. Feel like collaborating? Drop me a line.

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