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Hacking Urbania: Applying Open Source Development to Cities

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Open-source development is bound to be a growing factor for change as it demonstrates in more and more areas just how profoundly bad the ownership of innovative ideas has been for the common good. If you haven’t noticed that idea reaching out of our computers and into our 3D world, you’re in for a treat.

I just finished reading some mildly curious thoughts from radical sociologist Saskia Sassen (via The New Significance). In addition to being painfully abstract if not esoteric in her presentation, Sassen’s quirky approach to an idea titled “Open Source Urbanism” was entirely unsatisfying, except that it caused a stream of ideas to flow in my tiny brain.

It’s not at all clear that Sassen really understands the concept of open source, or that she bothered doing a Google search using the terms in the title of her commentary. We need to start with a better articulation of what open source means.

Open source is rejection of private intellectual property, at least in the conventional sense. If it’s open source, anyone can see, use, and even copy bit for bit the inner makings of the project under a highly permissive license.

In addition to this, what most of us think of as open source (in spirit if not technically) is a development model by which contributions are relatively democratic and assessed for utility and merit over profitability or their potential to concentrate authorship or credit. Virtually anyone can participate, and contributions that succeed in improving the project will be incorporated into the final product; otherwise, they could inspire a spin off, or maybe fall by the wayside.

Sassen is not the first to come up with the idea of applying this development attitude to our cities. I first learned of it a couple years ago when entrepreneur Mark Groton made a splash in a Wired feature story on his open source urban planning projects. While heavily software-oriented, we’re talking about mass transit and conventional urban planning functionality done using open standards and semi-proprietary code bases. (Basically, the stuff is packaged, installed, and supported by a company at a fee, but the underlying code is open and usable by anyone.) In theory, no longer must small- and medium-sized municipalities either hire contractors to custom-develop planning systems from scratch or pay for big-money packages just to have tools comparable to those the big cities enjoy.

Open Source CityBeyond software, how else would open source concepts be relevant to city planning? I think it would be more in the form of open source architecture or open design, which is to me by far the most exciting new branch of the open source movement. I’m talking about people who may or may not work in a municipal office contributing concrete planning work — blue prints, research and assessment efforts, policy drafts, functional technologies — and just handing their ideas over to the public. The idea of this happening would have sounded insane 20 years ago, but now we see people with talent and expertise making patent- and copyright-free contributions of all sorts to the public good.

Remember, a key attribute of open source is that it can be freely copied by another project, as long as it is always kept open. So I can view the code behind a piece of open-source software, without ever having lent a single minute of my time or ounce of my expertise to that project, and simply copy and paste all that code into a new folder and start building my own version. I just can’t claim the part I borrowed as my own creation or try to prevent someone from borrowing it or try to profit off that portion. (I modified the theme of this very blog by hacking the open source code base!)

Cities do this all the time, quite consciously. So do nations for that matter. They meet at conventions or send direct delegations and share their successes on nearly every front, from dealing with crime to delivering water to acquiring revenues, and they encourage their peers to copy them, without asking for money or even credit in return. It’s not a revolutionary idea at all; it’s simply how we relate when cooperation trumps competition.

But cities are not entirely unlike the corporate world, especially when private contractors are involved. They pay for consultations that might have generalizable applications, but either they or the contractor might consider the results proprietary, forcing every city that wants a similar assessment to start at the drawing board with a consultant. There is room for more openness.

Another matter is labor: those who best know how to innovate and automate aspects of municipal functionality are perversely incentivized to withhold their ideas for fear of ironically innovating their way to a layoff. In these times of austerity and hostility toward labor, even unionized municipal workers are barely more protected from this perversion than unorganized private-sector counterparts. This is a big part of the problem with productivity gains not being generalizable.

Even where openness and idea sharing are commonplace, the approach of an explicitly “open source” process for urban planning might be a positive shift. If at every stage of development, any urban initiative (or rural initiative, for that matter) were treated as open — handled with the understanding it would be kept transparent and shared freely, as well as welcoming public participation in managed ways — we could see new approaches to everything from after-school programs to traffic coordination to emergency services to zoning to local currencies*. City planners of all types could benefit from the technical approach honed by open source software developers with their version planning, communication methods, beta testing models, code repositories, and so forth.

As long as I’m brainstorming, I should note the most exciting potential for open source city organizing is in grassroots form. Above I’ve implied city officials taking advantage of the open approach, but the real beauty of this is something that Sassen did indeed seem to be trying to get at in her commentary: let residents engage in hacking their city through organizing movements that take advantage of ideas coming out of the grassroots, either locally or from another town somewhere, then push for implementation or engage in direct action.

Imagine open-source technologies like 3D printers and open-license designs giving neighborhood activists the technical power to build and install their own traffic light or construct expertly designed playground equipment without contractors. The possibilities are endless. It’s the kind of hyper-localized empowerment (not in any figurative sense, either) that communities can use to thrive during crises.

If you find this stuff interesting, you may dig…

  • The Open Source Ecology project is one of the most fascinating undertakings you’re likely to come across. These guys are pushing (and beginning to practice!) open design on a grand, social scale with ambitious intentions. Take some time to check it out — the promise here cannot be overstated. Watch their video here if you want to have your eyes pop out of your head. (You will also marvel at how utterly shitty the background noise is, but I swear it’s still worth the viewing.)
  • The Open Plans Project is rife with interesting ideas that, properly applied, could have radical implications; I think they’d need to be tied to the kind of social movement that can best take advantage of them.
  • This short interview is decidedly un-radical but it’s kind of inspiring nonetheless.
  • Finally, Open Source Urbanism is something I found in that Google search for the title of Sassen’s article, though I haven’t looked into it very deeply.

With apologies for the disjointed entry, I hope I got some of the salivary glands in your brain working like they are in mine.

*Incidentally, all sorts of community-based alternative economies have traditionally considered openness of design key to their functioning and development, be it an enhanced barter system or a local currency like Ithaca Hours; leaders and advocates of these projects tend to strongly encourage customized implementations of their ideas, which they’ll eagerly share for the price of a cup of coffee.

Image credit: opensource.com

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