Democracy and Medieval High-Tech Cities – Interview with Tomas Diez
Posted on September 4, 2014 by ouishare
Tomas Diez is a venezuelan urbanist and utopist, with deep concern for citizen empowerment and democracy. He lives in Barcelona where he is currently involved in the Fab City initiative, together with protagonists like Barcelona’s deputy mayor Antoni Vives and chief architect Vicente Guallart. Barcelona city aims to create a network with Fab Labs in each district in the next few years . Tomas was a keynote speaker at OuiShare Fest both in 2013 and 2014, and got to know OuiShare through the connectors of its spanish branch: Albert Cañigueral and Cristobal Gracia.
It was a natural choice to ask Tomas to contribute with his expertise to the creation of the Collaborative Territories Toolkit, and it didn’t take long for him to answer to our request. To our joy, a Skype interview was set up within a week’s time. He connected from his home right at the seafront in the Barceloneta neighbourhood in Barcelona, with a beautiful colourful painting making up the background of the conversation.
Please enjoy this very first interview carried out for the Sharitories initiative, providing many useful insights and provocative ideas to consider in the elaboration of the Collaborative Territories Toolkit.
Stina: So, starting from scratch: how can the collaborative economy be introduced to local policy-makers?
Tomas: This is kind of difficult, because when approaching local government there is tension between new ways and established structures. More than talking about collaborative economy, I think we need to look at processes of democracy and participation.
We need more active participation, and that the citizens become protagonists in for example transactions taking place in the city. For that we need to enhance the way in which democracy is practiced on the local level. So I think a crucial starting point is that the rights of citizens should be in focus.
S: Which local department do you think is best placed to “host” collaborative and sharing economy topics?
T: Collaborative Economy is a kind of transversal topic, so it’s quite difficult. Perhaps it could be the employment office, whose traditional role has been to generate jobs. Now it is more about generating opportunities and empowering people. It’s a new model, and city councils should help people to be productive.
S: What are the main problems or barriers you have encountered with your own work or projects?
T: I don’t know, I’m kind of a lucky person!
Well, what we found, and what I think everyone is going to find, is the tension between old and new ways, and that many people are not ready yet. For example, one frustrating thing when working with city councils is that they are still in the old way.
Instead, they should understand that they are platforms: their role is to enable citizens and businesses to realise their visions. If they would to try this new role, they would soon see for themselves that revenues would come anyhow in the end!
S: This last point kind of answers to my next question actually: how local governments can position themselves in relation to other stakeholders to co-create a vision for collaborative territories?
T: Yep, they should be platforms. What tends to happen is that local governments that try to lead mostly try to make a marketing campaign, and seek to create an impression of themselves as “good government” in the public opinion. I think the real deal is to really empower people.
S: How can local governments work with national authorities to avoid to end up in legal and regulatory “grey zones”?
T: There is definitely some tension in this field. For example, in Spain there is a law forbidding people to produce energy in their homes. On the other hand, in the Fab City vision the idea is to produce energy locally and create self-sufficient districts. I am an utopist, I know, but I think that the idea of the nation state is obsolete, as pointed out by Benjamin Barber, who thinks that mayors should rule the world.
In the end, the national politicians people vote for you never see, whereas a mayor is much closer to the people. If they were given more power, this would help to create more productive, self-sufficient cities.
S: What would be the one tool you would propose for the Collaborative Territories Toolkit we are creating?
T: A lot of things have already been invented, so I think it is important to look at processes rather than tools. There will never be one specific toolkit, but many processes and tools. One interesting project that I just read about iss Ethereum, an open source platform inspired by Bitcoin, where people can create their own local currencies, whatever they are.
I think what we will see is a kind of return to Medieval ways of carrying out transactions in a city, but in a High-Tech way. Maybe people within cities will trade milk, water and other things rather than money.
S: That ties into my next question. We are in 2025. How do you see collaborative economy at local level?
T: Well the thing is, the collaborative economy has happened before, it is just being carried out in new ways. Look for example at Indians in Latin America over 600 years ago, they already had a collaborative economy. From what I see, now technology can help us to reinvent humanity and humanism maybe.
S: Sharitories – what does this neologism evoke to you ?
T: I like and don’t like neologism. Sharitories [pauses] for me… it is not that hot!
S: Thank you very much. It’s now time for some more targeted questions based on your specific expertise.
First one: in your OuiShare Fest 2014 Keynote, you mention that in the Fab City, mixed network of labs should not only be funded and managed by public organisations. In your opinion, what would be the optimal partnership model for stakeholders of Fab Labs (e.g. users, public organisations, private companies)?
T: First of all, I think there shouldn’t be a model. Actually, what we spoke about at the Fab10 conference in Barcelona recently was the planned disappearance of Fab Labs. What I think will happen is that digital fabrication will move to people’s homes, just like happened with computation. In the beginning, there were places where to go to use computers, now people have them in their pockets and built into their washing machines.
Importantly, we must not let public organisations own Fab Labs, because we have seen how badly that can turn out. That is why with Barcelona Fab City we are taking a leadership position in helping local organisations to establish Fab Labs independently.
S: On the other hand, how do you feel about corporate Fab Labs, i.e. owned by large corporations?
T: That’s great. It is already happening too, like Renault, Airbus, etc [didn’t get which companies]. I think we have a lot to learn from such examples, and how Fab Labs move from being a hobby for some enthusiasts to be enablers for local and global businesses, as well as for creating social impact..
Stina: You talk a lot about education around Fab Labs and digital fabrication, including Fab Academy and introducing digital fabrication in school curricula. Do you have any ideas on how to promote education for the “common citizen” (i.e. not students or digital professionals) in this field?
T: I think this is something that will happen spontaneously when different tools start appearing in different places. Take for example a person working at Zara, a quite “common” citizen. Today this person is perhaps mainly working with folding and selling clothes, but imagine if Zara decides to move towards a model where you start to create the clothes yourself. Then the role of this person will completely change.
I don’t thinks it is so much about teaching these things, because new generations will be mostly born with it, like with computers and kids: everyone has a history in which a 3 year old kid takes a smart phone and starts to use it without any instructions.
I think we need to plan the future for kids rather than for our grandparents, because they are the ones who will take over.
S: You have founded the Smart Citizen project. How do you think this device could help to develop collaborative projects?
T: This project is part of a vision for cities with distributed sensors, as a way for cities to become platforms for people to be productive. The first version of the sensor board is now in the “proof of concept” phase, where its users capture data that can be made useful. I think that next year, when we will launch a second version, big things will happen!
The idea is that this will become a political tool. People collaborate when they have common concerns, and the Smart Citizen board will help to discover them. 1000 Smart Citizen boards are already being used by technology enthusiasts, researchers and curious people (quite specific groups so far).
I like how Jaron Lanier talks about the automisation of work and human tasks, and how computers are continuously allowing that to happen. When we interact online, we always leave a digital trace. Now these traces have led to empires of data owners like Google and Amazon. In the near future, the Smart Citizen will be able to create and own its own personal trace. This is likely create a whole new economy and a new middle class using data to be productive.
I look forward to see research advance in this field, as already under way at the MIT.
S: Thank you very much for your time and interesting insights Tomas! And have a great summer!
By: Stina Heikkilä