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11/3/2016 / Issue #006 / Text: Sebastian Olma

Fair City: Beyond the Ideological Trinity of Innovation

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 island.

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 phenomenon: 

“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 (see Fair City komt op stoom in this issue of AA). 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 Defence of Serendipity. For a Radical Politics of Innovation will be published later this year by Repeater Books London.