Humanizing smart cities with open source

This blog post has been inspired by the following link: The Automation of Rio: Smart City or Digital Tyranny?

The article talks about how technology can contribute to improve the living environment in cities, but, making reference to another article, asks also the question “is it really a good idea to give a computer company (IBM is not an urban planner!) so much control over one of the world’s biggest cities?”

Now, it is a reality that, notably in the global South, in cities there are many brilliant people but not enough jobs. With the surging need to adapt cities to modern technology, the proliferation of ubiquitous tech, the drive towards transparency in municipalities and government (read “Open Government” and “Open Data”), often city administrations resort to big companies to solve their IT problems. And often this results in huge amounts of money paid for proprietary licenses for software for which open source alternatives exist, all the while the solutions offered by those companies are imported.

Often the argument against open source is the missing support in case things go wrong. I was wondering, what if cities, maybe in collaboration with universities, hackerspaces, collectives, institutions, businesses and independent entities, would actually train locals in the administration of the infrastructure for running a city?

A reason why I think this might have huge impact is that locals are much more interested in the city’s flourishing than an external business. The budget for licenses would be spent in training locals, the money would stay in the city and not be drained, while new opportunities would be created. Furthermore, and very important, also the knowledge would remain locally. Being this knowledge based on open source technology, if could be openly documented, maybe involving local library facilities and staff.

And being it open source, we could think of a network of open source cities, where knowledge about running city tech infrastructure would openly be shared. This would offer tremendous advantages for the prosperity and adaptation of new technology.

After all, cities are run by public money. Why not invest this money in public infrastructure? I can imagine that this may increase the level of participation by citizens in city affairs. If this is accompanied by sincere efforts in open government and open data, a new sense of taking responsibility and participation may develop in city inhabitants, blurring the divide between “them” and “us”. Open data anyway is a still undervalued tool not understood by many. Politicians not supporting open data would appear as secretive, as wanting to hide something. Voting for candidates openly advocating open data contributes to improving transparency.

The advantage of open source is that anybody can adapt code to their needs. Thus, if a team of open source technologists are in charge of running the infrastructure, they may come up with new ideas on how to adapt technology to local requirements. Finally, smart, intelligent cities is more about citizens, about humans, rather than technology alone. Thus if the technology is open source, managed and run by local people, the smart intelligent city becomes more than a buzzword for business; rather it has the potential to become reality, in that intelligent people contribute to create the intelligent city they want.

To me this sounds like a very reasonable thing to do, and see it as a tremendous opportunity. But maybe my idealism is again too far away from reality?

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Interchangeable energy backed currencies?

I have been thinking a lot lately about why most complementary currency schemes do not work very well. I think I have some ideas.

Most projects start off with lots of inspiration, commitment and excitement. There are often some very charismatic project leaders and lots of volunteer efforts and loads of idealism. The community gets instigated to participate, accounts get opened, talks about the downsides and ugly sides of the current economies happen on and on, and a new way of doing things is propagated. Great.

Then after some time hits reality. There’s not really a lot going on through the chosen platform. People post their skills, and sometimes, a few needs. Maybe a few trades happen, notably by the most engaged in the project. Maybe a bit more. But no world changing movements.

Well, a reason may be that those currencies maybe even would work well. They are designed to strictly work locally. But our reality today is global.

So while it sounds marvellous, as soon as I have to pay the rent, as I have to ponder how to buy a new computer, how to buy a smart phone, etc. my local units do not apply. Thus faith in the system starts to fade away…

Can we do something about it?

Well, I have been thinking: even a small country can have its own currency. See Switzerland. Or Iceland, with 320’000 souls living there. In a way, that is also a local currency. So why does the official currency work that way?

The answer should be convertibility. You can convert those (notably intrinsically worthless fiat currency) units into something else – Dollars, Yen, Euros.

Could we do that as well with local currencies?

It would be difficult to agree on something which would be of value in all communities working with local currencies. Mutual credit can help but does not scale that much.

Something we all need though is energy. Lots of people are talking about energy backed currencies right now, notably Chris Cook has published ideas. However, often energy is a thing which is not in our hands. Some big companies produce energy.

What if local decentralized energy feeds would be actually the issuer of currency? This would mean that for every kWh of energy generated, the correspondent amount of currency unit would be emitted. This would be circulating in the community as money, and could be redeemed for actual energy by the local producers! The nice thing about this is that most of decentralized energy production is green clean energy – solar, wind, biomass, etc. This could encourage and actually fire up quite some wave of innovation and local entrepreneurship, as there are advantages in being the issuer of currency.

Thinking the idea further, some VISA kind of network could be setup, ideally with strong participation by Transition Town movements and the like, which would ensure convertibility. Thus the Totnes pound, being backed by kWh, could be spent in the São Paolo transition movement because there they participate as well in the network and their local currency is also backed by energy.

To ensure playing fair, we could even think of some sophisticated electronic support on top of exchange and such. For example, each generating facility yes, can emit currency, but it would need to have its units electronically signed, in order for counter-parties to trust those units. The signing authority would be a chaordic-commons-kind of organization with open and transparent participation, its sole role would be to ensure units signing. This might be accomplished by get sneak-peaks from bitcoins and get some ideas there.

Nevertheless I can’t see an energy backed currency to be the only currency. I still believe that the future is full of a plethora of currencies. Bitcoins, with derivates and similar designs, could play huge role for virtual commerces on the Internet. Local currencies, backed by energy, or land use, as Chris Cook suggests, would still me geared towards local use. This gives us choice. If we want to stay only local, we might concentrate on acquiring local units. If we interact a lot globally, we’d need to engage with virtual communities in order to acquire those units.

These are just a few ideas I throw out there. I have no idea how much they are worth, but as I believe in collective intelligence, maybe they lead to somewhere, or maybe not. For example a unit being backed by energy produced means that growth is reflected with some real value. And it is boundless, abundance based. There is no limit on the amount of energy we create. I confess I am not sure though if that would have some serious implications (I am not an economist!). Would we get inflation, with too many units created after some time? Not sure about these things, and I am open to critique and comments ( 🙂 ).

But these words are more worth wasting a few bits on a blog than staying forever in my head.

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Why am I here in Medellín?

I now live in Medellín, Colombia, since 7 months. I came here because life put a lot of hints in front of me, one of them being love. But also because investigating about this city I realized there’s a bunch of interesting processes going on in this city.
Medellin went through a undeniably special period in the 80s and 90s during which drug-related violence was ravaging, on top of the known events of colonization, independence processes and following convulsions in the access to power, more or less common to the reality of the whole continent generally. This and socio-economic issues with inequality, access to resources, education and markets resulted in that creativity became a major quality with which to stand out from the masses as an individual in order to make a living. In my observation Medellin is full of extraordinary and highly creative people.
In the meanwhile, the design of society as suggested by the West is in severe crisis; the EU for example is on the verge of collapse. The abstract model of perpetual growth is crashing into physical realities, revealing intrinsic limitations. Apart from serious problems of pollution, lack of sustainability, inequality, exploitation and injustice, an important characteristic of this model is the tendency towards fragmentation and isolation of human beings, which comes with profound social and psychic stresses. It does not surprise at this point that other tendencies towards collaboration, collaboration, sharing and community start to appear: people go back contemplating the ontological essence of being a human. Modern science is also undergoing transformation, from going into bisecting everything into ever smaller distinct and smaller pieces towards relationships and commonalities. Quantum physicists express themselves more like eastern philosophers as we are used from science lingo. We are rediscovering what ancient wisdom always promulgated: that everything is interrelated and that separation is only a lense of perception.
Electronic media have facilitated for people to re-introduce ancestral practices of communication in their lives, practices which went forgotten with the consumption mantras of the markets. Individuals restart communicating directly, to share freely, to collaborate, work together. All this goes against market logic as conceived by mainstream economists, and according to these economists, for example, a computer operating system like linux, free and jointly produced, should not be possible. What these new media allow is to amplify and extend our innate propensities to relate to others towards the whole globe. We can communicate with anyone on the other side of the world. We can form networks with anyone and share information with people with affinity to our passions, interests or study focus. Notions of time and space get diluted.
In parallel to this, there’s a revaluing of the physical meeting. Finally – we can assist to the expansion of the “lab” phenomenon – laboratories of techno-social experimentation, where folks meet up to share knowledge, learn together, and feel part of a group, creating community. In these communities things get produced, created and shared freely for the simple wish of wanting to do it, and because it confers to participants a feeling of belonging and satisfaction – let’s say it, of happiness. Not by chance a very symbolic periodic event happening twice weekly in Medellin has been named “Lo doy porque quiero” (I give it because I want: a series of talks, presentations – whatever really – in which anybody can stand up and talk about something).
The practice of producing open source software revealed to the world what is possible to achieve with the commitment of a few individuals with a shared goal. This also inspired and stimulated the exploration and experimentation with open source principles in other areas of human activity. There are already communities which consecrate themselves to themes such as open hardware, open government, open data, open university, open science, open cities, open business, to name just a few.
Thing is, many brains coming together generate many more ideas. And not only more ideas, but every contribution can be seen as a piece of lego for a bigger edifice, a more complete vision, a more holistic approach. Collective Intelligence.
We are confronted with tremendous challenges. And global ones. Too big to be solved by only a few individuals, singular entities or nations. On the other hand, ideas do not know frontiers nor barriers, knowledge flows freely, it is immaterial. Thanks to Internet, ideas, knowledge, information and wisdom can be divulged easily in their digital form, getting to whatever device being capable of presenting it. Digital technologies we have today at our disposal, contrary to massive conventional media like television and print, are bidirectional, and allow participation. We thus have at our reach the possibility to combine and let confluence knowledge of ever more souls.
Also, the majority of human beings flourishes in community with other humans, being in company, sharing. The first European cities grew on the base of areas of convergence in which distances were of more or less 20 minutes walking. In Latin America the life in “barrios”, neighborhoods, is still very alive and tangible. It is the natural configuration of human beings.
In contrast, current economic life does not respect these configurations. It creates an incessant flux of materials and people displacing themselves constantly, causing congestion and contamination. Decision processes are governed by criteria of finance and profit, resulting in apples being grown in New Zealand be sold in Switzerland which is replete of apples; that cocoa is shipped from Latin America to Europe for processing and sold back to the continent at much higher cost; and that natural resources are extracted from the earth and garbage deposited onto the earth itself labeling environmental and polluting costs as “externalities”. The market lives from advertisement, which incites us to more and more consumption, nourishing itself from the need of keeping us always unhappy, creating more and more wishes and converting more and more corners of the world to this religion, generating more and more expectations and with it again more consumption, resources extraction, and pollution. The mantra going with all this is the one of “growth”.
But there are a growing number of individuals which are realizing that this cannot go on like this indefinitely. They are looking for alternatives.
And if we’d go back to organize ourselves more akin the natural configuration of human being, like pondered before? If we go back forming communities, fulfilling most of what we need locally? If we’d take advantage of the qualities of digital technologies, which would allow to divulge information freely, spreading what we have learned, at the same time assimilating contributions by others, synthesizing everything into new knowledge, new realizations, creations, advancements, innovations? Transforming this knowledge into local adaptations, to solve local needs, creating artifacts locally?
That’s where I envision the confluence of the emergence of labs with the potential of technology. Local production based on the free flow of global knowledge. We already do not need gigantic production facilities for everything, and this tendency, with technology, is going to consolidate. Fablabs, spaces of collaborative creation, 3D printers, can lead to provide for many necessities locally, on-time, on-demand, personalized, without the need to inundate a market and producing unnecessary garbage. Labels and designs circulate freely, fostering new solutions, produced in the lab of the corner of our neighborhood. In a not-so-distant future I may be able to “print” my smart-phone there; the needed resources for that are sourced locally, by the local people, in a commons-managed way, thus not under foreign exploitation by entities insensible to local effects. Likewise, organic agriculture, in symbiosis of urban and rural, creating systems of bioregional supplying, covers food needs. Energy is generated decentrally, many buildings and constructions generate their own energy, feeding a local smart-grid; bio-hackerspaces provide us with indispensable modern products, like biodegradable products; many artifacts are assembled reusing and recycling materials; and economic questions are organized for the benefit of the community, not of speculators.
The first cities grew weaving an ecosystem of local entrepreneurship. The socio-economic fabric is more resilient by the measure of relationships which constitute it. With more diversity of production and artisanry, and interdependence of the local actors, a community is more strong and resilient, can thus bounce back much better from outside stresses. A community based on local business links and local resources then becomes stronger, resilient and independent from global market turbulences. This does not mean that there would be no interregional, international, or intercontinental trade. This always existed and will continue to exist in some form. Nevertheless, by strengthening local actors first, fostering local exchanges and building on local relationships first, communities consolidate their identity and coherence and are less susceptible to outside perturbation.
I think this postulate is not anti-progress, nor anti-business, not anti-anything. It is a proposal which is being built step by step. It is a proposal in which Medellin and South America in general can emerge as a model for the future, with all the creative potential initially mentioned. Also I think that community and cooperation, epitomized by the ancestral processes of the “minga”, or communal work, are still more alive and present on the continent.
I think that Medellin can play a exceedingly important role in the urgent transformation of society, towards a sustainable, just model impregnated with joy of living. Nothing is perfect, and not by chance right here very worrying factors continue to exist, like violence, exploitation, and oppression. Nevertheless, for those who are fed up with all the dismal of this world, we don’t have other options as to continue trying to create new realities.
This is why I want to participate in the processes currently unfolding in Medellín, I want to contribute the way I can, linking with active people and projects, interchanging thoughts, knowledge and ideas. I want to see what is possible to be birthed from things we are pondering collectively, to give life to longings of a society which instead of destroying itself treating their very nourishing base, the earth and its people, very badly, matures towards a society which cooperates to resolve huge challenges, and which resolves to care and even to enrich the cycles of life.

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Porque estoy aqui

Yo vivo en Medellín hace casi 7 meses. Vine aquí porque la vida me puso muchas pistas, una de ellas siendo el amor. Pero también porque investigando me dí cuenta de una cantidad de procesos interesantes pasando en ésta ciudad.

Medellín pasó por una época indudablemente especial en las decadas de los 80 y 90, después de los conocidos eventos de colonización, independización y convulsiones por acceso al poder, mas o menos comunes a la realidad del continente en general. Ésto y cuestiones socio-económicas con desigualdad, acceso a recursos, educación y mercados han resultado en que la creatividad en desembalarse en la vida han sido cualidades con las cuales destacarse como individuo para ganarse la vida. En mi observación Medellín está poblada por muchas personas altamente creativas.

Mientras tanto, el diseño de sociedad planteado por el mundo occidental se encuentra en grave crisis; la unión europea por ejemplo está al borde del colapso. El modelo abstracto de crecimiento perpetuo está chocandose con realidades físicas, revelando las limitaciones intrinsicas. A parte problemas serios de polución, insostenibilidad, desigualdad, explotación y injusticia, una caracteristica importante en éste modelo es la tendencia a la fragmentación y el aislamiento de los seres humanos, que ha comportado profundos trastornos sociales y siquicos. No sorprende en éste punto el surgimiento de tendencias de colaboración, cooperación, compartir y comunidad: la gente vuelve a contemplar la esencia ontológica de un ser humano. La ciencia moderna con su aporte está poniendo fin a la disección en partes distintas y siempre mas pequeñas como practicada convencionalmente, sino mas bien está volviendo a resaltar las relaciones, lo común. Los físicos cuánticos se expresan mas como filósofos orientales que en lingo cientifico. Estamos redescubriendo lo que las sabidurías ancestrales siempre han promulgado: que todo está interrelacionado y que la separación es una lente de percepción.

Los medios electrónicos han facilitado a las personas reintroducir en sus vidas prácticas ancestrales de comunicación que por los mantras de consumo del mercado han ido desapareciendo. Se vuelven a comunicar directamente, a compartir libremente, a colaborar, trabajar juntas. Todo eso va contra la lógica del mercado concebido por los economistas, y según esas teorias por ejemplo un sistema operativo para computadoras libre y conjuntamente creado como linux no sería posible. Lo que éstos nuevos medios nos permiten es ampliar las propensidades innatas de los humanos para relacionarse a todo el globo. Podemos comunicar con cualquier persona al otro lado del mundo. Y podemos formar redes con cualquiera y compartir informaciones con gente afin a nuestras pasiones, intereses o enfoques de estudio. Se difuminan nociones de tiempo y espacio.

Paralelamente a ésto, también se está revalorando el encuentro físico en persona. Enfin – es así que asistimos a la expansión del fenómeno de los labs – laboratorios de experimentación techno-social, dónde las personas se encuentran para compartir conocimiento, aprender juntas, y sentirse parte de un grupo, formando comunidad. En éstas comunidades se produce, se crea y se comparte libremente por el simple deseo de quererlo hacer, y porque les confiere a los integrantes un sentido de pertenencia y satisfacción – digamoslo, de felicidad. No acaso un evento periodico bien conocido muy simbolico en Medellín fue bautizado “Lo doy porque quiero”.

La práctica de desarrollar software de código abierto ha revelado al mundo lo que es posible hacer con la dedicación de unos individuos con un fin compartido. También ha inspirado y estimulado la exploración y experimentación con sus principios en otras areas de actividades humanas. Ya surgieron comunidades que se consagran a temas como el open hardware, open government, open data, open university, open science, open cities, open business, para solo nombrar algunas.

Es que muchos cerebros que se juntan generan muchas mas ideas. Y no solo mas ideas, pero cada contribución puede ser una pieza de lego para un edifico mas grande, una visión mas completa, und planteamiento mas holistico. Inteligencia colectiva.

Nos estamos enfrentando a retos tremendos. Y globales. Retos demasiado grandes para ser resueltos por algunos individuos, singulas entidades o naciones. Por otro lado, ideas no conocen fronteras ni barreras, el conocimiento fluye libre, es inmaterial. Gracias a Internet, ideas, conocimiento, información y sabiduría se pueden difundir facilmente en su forma digital, llegando a cualquier dispositivo que sea capaz de presentarlo. Las tecnologías digitales que hoy tenemos a disposición, a diferencia de los medios de información masíva convencionales como televisión y radio, son bidireccionales, y permiten la participación. Tenemos entonces a nuestro alcance la posibilidad de combinar y confluir conocimiento de siempre mas ánimas.

Entretanto la mayoría de los seres humanos florece en comunidad con otros humanos, estando en compañía, compartiendo. Las primeras ciudades europeas crecian en base a areas de convergencia en los cuales las distancias eran de mas o menos 20 min caminando. En Latinoamerica todavía es bien tangible y sigue viva la experiencia de vida en barrios. Es la configuración natural de seres humanos.

En contrasto, la vida economica actual no respeta éstas configuraciones. Crea un flujo incesante de materiales y personas desplazandose continuamente, causando congestión y contaminación. Los procesos de decisión están regidos por criterios de financiamiento y ganancia; resultan en que se vendan en Suiza manzanas crecidas en Nueva Zelanda a precios mas baratos cuando Suiza está llena de manzanas; que se transporte cacao desde Sur America hasta Europa para procesamiento para que se venda otra vez en el continente a costos mucho mas altos; que se extraiga recursos naturales de la tierra y se depositen los desechos contando los gastos de contaminación como externalidades. El mercado vive de la publicidad, que nos incita siempre a mas consumo, alimentadose de la necesidad de mantenernos infelices, instigando mas y mas deseos y convirtiendo siempre mas rincones de la tierra a ésta religión, generando siempre mas expectatias y por ende mas consumo, extracción de materia prima, y polución. El mantra que acompaña todo ésto es el del crecimiento.

Siempre mas individuos se están dándo cuenta que ésto no puede seguir así indefinitivamente. Se están buscando alternativas.

Y si volvemos a organizarnos mas afinemente a la configuración natural humana como antes planteado? Si volvemos a formar mas comunidades, abasteciendo la mayoría de nuestras necesidades de manera local? Si aprovecharíamos las propiedades de la tecnología digital, que nos permite divulgar la información libremente, difundiendo lo que hemos aprendido, al mismo tiempo que podemos asimilar contribuciones de otros, sintetizando todo en nuevo conocimiento, nuevas realizaciones, creaciones, avances, inovaciones? Transformando éste conocimiento en adaptaciones locales, para resolver retos locales, creando artefactos localmente?
Es ahi donde vislumbro la confluencia de la emergencia de labs con el potencial de las tecnologías. Producción local basada en el libre flujo de conocimiento global. Ya no necesitamos de gigantescas plantas de producción para todo, y esa tendencia, con la tecnología, va a consolidarse. Los fablabs, los espacios de creación colaborativa, las impresoras de 3D, llegarán a fornecer nuestras necesidades de productos localmente, a medida, cuando y cuanto precisadas, sin necesidad de inundar el mercado. Labels y diseños circulan libremente, fomentando nuevas soluciones, producidas en el lab de la esquina de barrio. En un futuro no lejano ahi podré “imprimir” mi smart-phone; las materias primas se aprovechan localmente, por la gente local, mancomunadamente, y entonces no bajo explotación de entitades ajenas insensibles a los efectos locales. De igual forma, agricultura orgánica, en simbiosis de urbe y área rural, creando sistemas de abastecimiento bioregional, cubre las vnecesidades alimenticias. La energía se genera de forma decentralizada, muchos edificios y construcciones generan su propia energia, alimentando una red inteligente local; el bio-hackerspace nos sirve con productos modernos indispensables, como plásticos biodegradables; muchos artefactos se ensamblan reutilizando y reciclando materiales; y las cuestiones economicas se organizan para el beneficio de la comunidad, no de los especuladores.

Las primeras ciudades crecieron tejendo un ecosistema de emprendimiento local. Los tejidos socioeconomicos son mas resilientes a medida de la cantidad de relaciones que lo conforman. Con mas diversidad de producción y artesania y interdependencia de los actores locales, una comunidad queda firme y resiliente, osea puede resistir mejor a estrés de afuera. Una comunidad que está fundada sobre lazos de emprendimiento y recursos local por ende se vuelve mas firme, resiliente y independiente de las turbulencias de mercado global. Ésto no quiere decir que no haya negocio interregional, internacional o intercontinental. Ésto siempre ha existido de alguna forma, y seguirá existiendo. Sin embargo, fortaleciendo primeramente los actores locales, fomentando intercambio local y construyendo sobre las relaciones locales, las comunidades consolidan su identidad y su coherencia y son menos susceptibles a perturbaciones ajenas.

Creo que ésto no es una postulación anti-progreso, ni anti-negocio, ni anti-nada. Es una propuesta que se está colaborativamente construyendo paso a paso. Es una propuesta en la cual Medellín y Sur America en general puede surgir como un modelo para el futuro, con todo el potencial creativo inicialmente mencionado. También creo que comunidad y cooperación, epitomado por los proceso ancestrales de la minga, están aún mas vivos en el continente.

Creo que Medellín puede jugar un papel sumamente importante en la urgente transformación de sociedad, hacia un modelo sostenible, justo y impregnado de felicidad de vivir. Nada es perfecto, y no acaso aquí mismo siguen existiendo factores muy inquietantes de violencia, explotación y sopresión. Igual para los que estamos hartos de todo lo lúgubre de éste mundo, no tenemos otra opción de que seguir intentando a crear nuevas realidades.

Por todo ésto quiero participar en los procesos que se están dándo en Medellín, quiero contribuir como puedo, enlazandome con la gente activa, intercambiando pensamientos, conocimientos y ideas, a ver que puede nacer de lo que nos estamos planteando conjuntamente para dar vida a los anhelos para una sociedad que en lugar de destruirse a si misma maltratando su propia base, la tierra y los hombres, madure a una sociedad que coopera para resolver grandes problemas, y que llegue a cuidar y hasta enriquecer los ciclos de la vida.

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