Patrice Riemens on Thu, 31 Mar 2016 11:01:49 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Sebastian Olma: Fair City: Beyond the Ideological Trinity of

Sebastian Olma is, like me, part of the 'Amsterdam Fair City'
collective, a grass-root initiative triggered by the Dutch presidency
of the EU, which is being showcased in Amsterdam for a large part. It
aims to provide some counterweight to the exceedingly rosy picture the
municipality is painting of Amsterdam as a creative, innovative hub,
welcoming makers and other hi-technophiles people (preferably young,
preferably self-sustaining and business-oriented), leaving the rest
of the less well-endowed population with dwindling social housing,
cuts in welfare, and the other trappings of a neo-liberal economic and
political dispensation, all this cloacked, of course, in a thick dash
of 'participatory', 'empowering', and 'community' rhetorics ...

Original to:

Fair City: Beyond the Ideological Trinity of Innovation
By Sebastian Olma

1. Imagining the Future: Europe by People

There is a bit of future in the Amsterdam air these days. From
January to June, our city is hosting the events around the Dutch EU
presidency. While the old Navy Terrain, Amsterdam’s latest creative
city development, hopes to get a boost from hosting the official
meetings, there is also a cultural fringe program called Europe
by People. And this is where the future comes in because that’s
what “Europe by People” is all about: “the future of everyday
living,” the future of our city.

Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam’s headquarters for all things
innovative, has taken the lead in developing a vision on said
future of everyday living. In a series of meetings and conferences,
‘experts’, ‘change makers’ and ‘pioneers’ are set to work
toward something called the New Europe City Makers Agenda. And to give
us a bit of a taste of what the city in this New Europe is going to
be like, a Fabcity is being built at the head of Amsterdam’s Java

Now, imagining the future is a tricky business. Pundits and
futurologists usually get it wrong because they tend to imagine the
future as a technological update of the present (“in ten years, we
will all 3D-print our shoes at home,” etc). This approach doesn’t
even work for good science fiction as it defines the future as a
linear, calculable succession of the present. It’s not only boring
but also the exact opposite of what history teaches us. And here
we encounter the first big problem in our current relationship to
the future: forgetting the past. Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde,
mouthpiece of the Dutch design and innovation scene, has recently
praised the Millennials for their innovative worldview. “We are
thinking,” he said, counting himself in, “not from the past but
from the future.” While it is absolutely unclear what this statement
actually means, the forgetfulness of the past that it suggests is
of course anything but an advantage when it comes to imagining a
desirable future. Throughout history, whenever there was an innovative
impetus toward a better future, it came about as a reaction to the
then present conditions that where seen by a sufficient amount of
people as worthy of disruption. Think enlightenment, think social and
political revolutions, etc. The drive towards a better future always
starts from an analysis of present conditions and the (past) processes
that have let to these conditions. So, no, thinking from the future
is not the way to get to a different, desirable, better future. This
isn’t rocket science, it’s simply logic.

The only instant in which thinking from the future would actually work
is if one knew in advance what the future was going to look like.
Of course, such a claim would be utterly nonsensical and our New
Europe City Makers don’t quite pretend to have a time machine at
hand. However, they engage in a sort of light version of this logical
fallacy by having an entire toolbox of solutions ready before even
looking at potential problems and challenges. This toolbox contains
things like “smart city,” “circular economy,” “digital
design,” “urban farming,” “peer-to-peer society” and so on.
The problem here is that these tools set an agenda for the future
city that has nothing to do with a Europe by People in the sense of
democratic or even bottom-up decision making. Instead, they are the
result of a trickle down effect from the Californian Ideology, i.e.,
Silicon Valley’s corporate philosophy that combines libertarian
economics with reactionary politics and a dash of hippie spirituality.
One of the main vehicles through which this ideology ensures its grip
on European policy making is the consultant-driven complex that has
been built around the so-called creative industries policies. Through
infotainment formats such as TEDx and the selective programming of
local outlets such as Pakhuis de Zwijger, the Californian Ideology has
managed to confine our thinking about the future to an ideological
space defined by three major paradigms: (social) entrepreneurship,
digital technology and community politics. Together, these paradigms
form an ideological trinity of innovation, bringing forth tools and
approaches whose track record is remarkable only in one respect:
upholding the status quo.

2. Social Entrepreneurship: An Exercise in (Self-)Deception Take
social entrepreneurship. It promises to overcome the dualism between
market and social progress; doing social good by using the market as
vehicle. There is nothing wrong with this per se except, perhaps,
for the fact that much of social entrepreneurship fails its own
entrepreneurial aspirations by massively relying on sponsors and
government subsidies., an Internet bulletin for the
social entrepreneurship scene has recently drawn attention to this

“The social entrepreneur PR industry grows all the time and is
hungry for content and personalities. This is dangerous and results in
people being hailed as saviours and game changers when their business
models are nowhere near proven – still less the damaging, unintended
consequences known and understood.”

Harmonising the logic of the market and social progress turns out
to be a bit more difficult empirically than the proponents of
social entrepreneurship want to make us belief. This isn’t really
surprising: there is a basic logical conflict between entrepreneurial
innovation and social innovation. Within the economy, the necessity
to innovate is a result of the logic of competition that requires
– today at increasingly shorter intervals – the introduction
of new products and services (for consumption) as well as the
renewal of machinery and processes (for production). While for every
self-respecting business man or woman the outcome of these processes
are sufficient to define progress, for the proponents of social
entrepreneurship, it is not. Innovation in the economic sense is one
of the major drivers of the logic of economic growth, which is exactly
what causes many of the problems social entrepreneurship is bent on
solving. It stabilises the system rather than setting off processes
leading to the “systemic change” that the rhetoric of social
entrepreneurship promises.

3. Digital Hubris: Measuring Amsterdam The second paradigm of the
ideological trinity of innovation that the New Europe City Makers
adhere to is an obsession with digital technology. A particularly
problematic expression of this obsession can be found with regard
to “redesigning democracy” - another of their important themes.
The idea behind it is that democratic processes can be digitally
redesigned by crafty design experts building prototypes that are then
‘rolled-out’ or ‘scaled’ just like products of the digital
economy. I am not exactly sure where such an infantile understanding
of political process is coming from but it surely is reminiscent of
Buckminster Fuller’s hubris of the “comprehensive designer” that
had quite some traction with the hippies in the 1960s. Fuller was an
extremely smart and creative man but his failure - which was also,
to an extent, that of the hippies - was to believe politics could be
substituted by design sages conducting society from a place outside
and above it.

Today, digital upgrades of Fuller’s failed fantasies have returned
to haunt us once again. An extremely worrying version of this is
developed right now by Citizen Data Lab at Amsterdam’s polytechnic,
the HvA. Based on a Big Data gathering tool called Measuring
Amsterdam, Citizen Data Lab has begun to design “blueprints
containing information on local knowledge for the purpose of starting
grass-root initiatives.” However this is exactly supposed to work,
providing potential grass-root initiatives with blueprints seems
to somewhat defy their purpose. Anyone who has ever had anything
to do with this kind initiatives knows that the process of talking
to neighbours and discovering that they share (or don’t) one’s
concerns, add others or sway one’s opinions is an absolutely
essential part of the process. To believe that this should be
short-circuited by a Big Data tool represents a remarkable form of
cybernetic naivety, modelling social interaction on the disembodied
information exchange of computers. If such reductive thinking turned
into social or indeed, governmental practice, the effect on the
vitality of the city would be disastrous. And if we were to follow
Roosegaarde’s advice and think about this from the perspective of
the future, a situation comes to mind in which local activism in a
fully functional Smart City either complies with the requirements of
prefabricated Big Data templates or looses its legitimacy. Add to
this the possibility of an extreme right-wing party taking power in
The Netherlands and a scenario emerges in which a tool like Measuring
Amsterdam could be put to all kinds of despicable purposes.

4. Redesigning Democracy: Technologies of Changeless Change The fact
of the matter is that the idea of digitally redesigning democracy,
citizenship or activism is absolute nonsense even if it doesn’t
lead to such excrescences of academic irresponsibility. People have
struggled for centuries to put in place political institutions
that allow for at least a minimum of (democratically legitimated)
social steering. The fact that these institutions do not function
as efficiently and effectively as we would like them to, that they
might even have become corrupted by anti-democratic interests,
motivations and so on, does not mean that it has suddenly become
possible to bypass the complexities of social life by way of digital
design processes. The only effect of such attempts at “redesigning
democracy” is cementing a practice of “changeless change”
(Naomi Klein), i.e., a simulation of social or political progress
that simultaneously upends current practices and studiously protects
existing wealth and power inequities.

For those who are willing to look, there is already quite a bit of
the writing on the wall in this respect. We have witnessed countless
social design challenges, safaris, and retreats whose pretentions
reached from solving the Greek debt-crisis to prototyping the
sustainable society. What makes these kinds of seemingly innocent
attempts to try something new in the face of ‘wicked problems’
so dangerous is that they normalise the idea of social and political
activism as pure gesture. The prototype becomes the therapeutic excuse
for real political engagement without which ‘making the world a
better place’ remains a fatal mixture of infantilism and hyperbole.
And this is why we must call these pretentious change-gymnastics
ideological: because they try to replace political activism with
prefabricated gestures of change. If you want the world to remain as
it is, this kind of social design is the thing to do.

5. Beyond Community: A Fair City for All Which brings us to the third
paradigm of the ideological trinity of innovation: community politics.
This entails the really important question of what a political
activism that is both honest and efficacious could or should look
like today. According to the New Europe City Makers, community is
really the key here. Small scale, peer-to-peer, distributed, etc.
is the way to go if one really wants to systematically change the
world, or, perhaps to begin with, the city. Again, I am quite at a
loss as to why this gospel attracts so many believers when there is
absolutely no evidence whatsoever for successful political change
through community organisation in modern, complex societies. From the
Lebensreform movements of the early 20th century to the hippies in the
1960s, the cyberians and netizens of the 1990s through to the very
recent projects of, say, the P2P-foundation, community activism has
the most abysmal track record when it comes to instigating, let alone
accomplishing, “systemic change.” Of course, one cannot but have
the greatest sympathies for those who are arguing that ‘in small
groups and communities we can at least do something’, ‘small steps
are better than no steps’, ‘better to do something in you local
context than do nothing at all’ and so on. However, the problem here
is scale. Your small scale, community-driven initiative might have the
noblest ends; it is always in danger of being perverted as long as the
system that governs its environment is badly programmed. And this,
unfortunately, is the case today with the bad programming going under
the name of neoliberal politics.

Consider one of Amsterdam’s most successful and socially responsible
developments of recent years: De Hallen. It’s a former tram depot
redeveloped into a local food market, including hotel, cinema
and restaurant but also with loads of social entrepreneurship,
dozens of jobs for people who would otherwise have never found
employment, social functions like a library and so on. And yet, its
most noticeable effect is a 50% hike in housing prices in the area.

Yes, this is a very specific example but it illustrates why ‘making
the world a better place’ doesn’t work at the level of community
or neighbourhood initiatives anymore. Change, if it wants to be
systemic, has to happen at the level of the system. It is obvious
that this kind of change unavoidably begins at the local level
but it cannot stay there. What the New Europe City Makers Agenda
wants is to use its intellectual and technological leverage to lock
potential dissent and truly disruptive change in the urban garden of
neighbourhood therapy. The city as a grass-root Zoo! This is what the
continuous chatter on community is all about. The sociologist Richard
Sennett warned us of this tendency already in the 1970s and his
diagnosis has never been more topical:

“Community becomes a weapon against society, whose great vice is
now seen to be its impersonality. But a community of power can only
be an illusion in a society like that of the industrial West, one in
which stability has been achieved by a progressive extension to the
international scale of structures of economic control. In sum, the
belief in direct human relations on an intimate scale has seduced
us from converting our understanding of the realities of power into
guides for our political behaviour. The result is that the forces of
domination or inequity remain unchallenged.”

Last week, on one of the rare occasions that a critical voice sounded
through the halls of Pakhuis de Zwijger, a professor of city marketing
(of all things!) reminded her audience what these forces of domination
and inequity are today: the international finance markets and the
docile governments that turn our cities into souvenir shops on their
behalf. Any project for a sustainable, desirable future of the
European city has to take this realisation as its point of departure.
And this means politicising our thinking about the urban future
beyond 3D-printers, aquaponic installations and smart citizen kits.
It is time to close the smart playground and act again like grown up
citizens who take their city as seriously as they take themselves!

If we want to build a desirable future for our city, we have to step
out of the ideological trinity of innovation and look at our city
unconditioned by consulting slogans and policy fashions. Fortunately,
there is a growing movement in Amsterdam that is trying to do exactly
that: Amsterdam Fair City. It is a platform of initiatives and groups
from all walks of life and with all kinds of motivations. What they
share is a concern for the city that emerges right out its gritty
reality. It comes from a place of defiant love, where people are in
touch with the struggles and joys of their hometown. It is open to
everyone who believes that fairness should define the rules of the
game when it comes to building the future of Amsterdam. And because
of that, it necessarily has to be a movement that entails conflict
and dissent as part of a democratic process toward a Fair City. No
happy-go-lucky chimaeras of city marketing here. Amsterdam doesn’t
want to be a Smart City. Or a Creative City. Or – Mokum forbid – a
Happy City. Amsterdam wants to be a Fair City.


Sebastian Olma is an Amsterdam-based author and critic. His latest
book, In Defense of Serendipity. For a Radical Politics of Innovation
will be published later this year by Repeater Books London.

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