SOME NOTES ON LABIC, COLOMBIA
his name, suddenly, was the name of the days,
and the moisture of the air was my desire
I intended to write a longer text, one in which everything would fit and make sense. It is now almost a month since I returned from Colombia, from the Civic Innovation Laboratory, an initiative of the Ibero-American General Secretariat (SEGIB), and I have been unable to produce anything coherent. Initially, because I was still overcome by the emotions that the experience aroused. And now, because it all comes and goes in my mind in powerful flashes with which I wrestle daily.
This was the first time that I fully subjected myself to this ‘particle accelerator’ that is a laboratory based on the methodology originally developed by MediaLab-Prado. A successful, award-winning and acclaimed methodology which came about with the Interactivos? platform and has moved towards the LABIC (Civic Innovation Labs), with adaptations and improvements done by the Civic Innovation Project. And so I made a few notes, of differing lengths and quality, on the different aspects of my experience. My participation has not only made a huge contribution to transforming my outlook, but has also strengthened some of my convictions.
. . .
Laboratories as a methodology
The laboratory methodology is a very powerful one. Since MediaLab-Prado developed Interactivos?, a program dedicated to the arts, its execution has been fine-tuned. Created in open code, it has been replicated in many countries, including Brazil. And like all open source software, it is constantly evolving. This year the SEGIB´s Civic Innovation Team, who coordinates the LABICs, moved forward on some key issues such as local engagement, a wider range of topics, and communication/documentation.
This is how it works: first of all, a call for projects is made with the aim of selecting ten proposals. In the case of this Colombian edition, preference was given to innovation projects targeted at the social inclusion of disabled people, people of African descent, indigenous communities, women, etc.
Once the projects have been selected, which are required to describe what kind of staffing they need in the proposal submitted for the call (an engineer, a sociologist, a communicator, an expert in virtual reality, and so on), a second selection process takes place, this time for staff. Around ten people are chosen for each project who will work with the promotor of the proposal, forming a multidisciplinary, heterogeneous team.
By the end of this stage, we had reached the figure of 110 people to take part in a two-week meeting – in this case LABICCo, in Cartagena de Indias – where the focus was on cooperation, collaboration and creation in the deepest and truest sense.
The laboratory also has its own technical team made up of coordinators, mentors, technology mediators and regional staff (when there are communities involved).
In my view, the best aspect of this methodology is bringing into contact different people with varying knowledge about common problems. Obviously this is not the only method proposed by this type of experience, but in this case it really works. Which is no small thing. It is very interesting to witness the journey between the starting point of the project and the end result. In the case of LABICCo, almost all the projects had already got underway virtually during the days leading up to the laboratory session by means of discussion lists and remote meetings. This meant that when they got to Cartagena, the cooperation project could be speeded up.
The promotors, obviously, took responsibility for ensuring that the “original” idea was the guiding thread of the work, but it is very common for adaptations to happen as a result of the involvement of staff and mentors. In some cases, the original proposal was completely transformed.
The process is surrounded by risk. Will it come out well? Will it fail? But in the end, what does ‘coming out well’ mean? And this is where an essential factor comes into play, which this year we have examined in great depth: documentation. The expectation is that a laboratory will produce prototypes, preferably ones that can continue being developed once the two weeks have passed. But also – and I believe that this was our main contribution to this year’s event – it is important that they tell a story; primarily, the story of how this developed technology can resolve specific problems. A civic laboratory is not just a space for producing technological prototypes, but for generating a whole gamut of knowledge.
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About the mentors
I was invited as a mentor. In principle, someone who keeps a close eye on the project and provides support to help the team achieve its objectives. The mentors were Cinthia Mendonça from Brazil, Raúl Oliván from Spain, Andreíza Anaya from Colombia and myself. We were joined by a mega-mentor, Lorena Ruiz from Spain, and coordinated by Pablo Pascale and Mariana Cancela. The local mediators were Cecilia Silva Caraballo, who apart from being quite outstandingly articulate is also an amazing singer, and Emanuel Julio, both from Cartagena. The technology mediators were Sergio Bromberg and Mario Alzate.
The mentors were all very different. Diverse, I should say. Only Cinthia had taken part in other projects as a mentor. On several projects, in fact. My meeting with Cinthia — which I want to put on record – was one of the loveliest chapters of this experience, because through her generosity and honed listening skills, she not only helped the projects but also helped us – the other mentors – to listen more attentively to what we are being told. Unsurprisingly, she seemed to us to be the perfect mentor, who ideally should be cloned to guarantee the success of other laboratories. We had already come across each other in life, but without the chance to cultivate that time as good mineiros do. And now that we could allow ourselves this time, I have discovered a friend.
If my memory serves me well, it was Malraux who wrote that we only possess of someone what we have changed in them. The reverse is also true. Those who contribute to our transformation take with them a little part of us. Lorena, for example, taught me about the humor in the north of Spain and showed me that there is a time to talk and a time to keep quiet. An art, most definitely.
I feel that we achieved excellent integration with the local mediators, who made sure that the projects truly connected with, and were respectful of, the community of Cartagena. Nevertheless, I saw much less of the region than I would have liked, and perhaps the chance to get out and about would have been healthy for me (but will have to wait for another occasion).
With regard to the technology mediators, I believe we need to give some more thought as to their function and integration. Perhaps they could be given a more elevated status so that people understand that they are not “fill-ins” for the absence of other staff members. I feel that based on our experience we could create a descriptive workflow diagram for all these functions. Not as something to be set in stone, but as a starting point. I’ll leave the idea open.
There was a moment when Andreíza sought me out to tell me that she felt a little alone in her task. I felt that too. I admit that it got to the point where I felt uncomfortable in the role, almost adrift from the dynamics, especially at the beginning of the second week, when for reasons beyond my control I missed the partial presentations of the projects. After this chat, the two of us circulated around the groups and I got my spirit back. Because that’s what can happen over the two weeks. We all experienced ups and downs. Hence the importance of those intemperate evenings and morning jogs with Raúl Oliván, that individual who is a mini-factory of creativity and endeavor who I have the pleasure to call a friend.
A mentor is not a teacher or a tutor, but a helping hand. A mentor is more of a collaborator who can bring an objective eye to the project. He or she can also be a provocateur. They can help to push a project out of its comfort zone, provided this is always in the spirit of helping with its reconstruction later on, preferably making it even stronger. The mentor should not assert his or her will. He or she must know how to listen, attentively, and generate empathy. They should not just address the project leader but the group as a whole, acting to defuse any possible internal conflicts or, at least, to bring them out into the open to help with their resolution.
It’s a noble function, that of mentor, as is the role of mediator. When we form an integrated team, we generate an organic whole that benefits everyone involved. I am convinced that as the days passed we turned into a team, and now, looking back from a certain distance, I believe it was one of the best teams I have ever worked with. And I am certain that good mentors are an absolutely essential part of the success of a civic laboratory.
I commended my efforts to produce an objective record and my fingers to the voice of my heart (it sounds corny but I don’t care). How could I not talk about the healthy leadership of Pablo Pascale and Mariana Cancela, who relieved each other almost invisibly, so perfect was the handover. Pablo, the diplomatic psychologist, the efficient manager – harnessing his finest talents to create the best possible conditions for the participants. Mariana, sometimes sweet, sometimes incisive, attentive to each and every individual, celebrating every advance and victory in a restrained yet categorical manner. Leadership such as theirs is absolutely essential for the success of any project.
. . .
About love and other comforts
A civic innovation laboratory such as the one we experienced in Cartagena de Indias is not just a workspace. It is, above all, a place in which to share dreams. A journey to our finest values. It was like a summer camp, like the ones you see in teen movies, but made up of the most beautiful people of different ages, colors, creeds and beliefs.
To give you an idea, let’s look for a moment at the official numbers for LABICCo: over 100 people, from 15 countries and 60 cities. Every exchange of glances followed by a conversation, an incredible discovery. Like the day we did the Pecha Kucha night (a design methodology in which the speaker presents 20 slides that change automatically every 20 seconds) devoted to free presentations by the participants, when Rafa Cortez, a Mexican engineer who has taken part in all three Labs and is involved in the Marimba Inclusiva project, asked us: “Do you know how old I am?” This came after telling us that he was the boss of a hardware and software development company employing over 20 people. “I’m 21 and the LABIC in Vera Cruz changed my life.” He got a standing ovation.
Or Ana Varela, a collaborator in the Gente Fuerte project, who on that same night presented a moving artistic work that she has been developing, using design to bring together fragments of her father, whom she never knew, who was a victim of the violence in Colombia. Ana, a wonderful artist, was there all that time. And we might not ever have known it, but we did.
Poet Raúl Oliván embraced the images of those people to produce little stories in the style of magical realism, supported by the photos of Colombian Andrés Mosquera (whose photos are reproduced in this article). There are so many people coming back into my mind, but I must make a point of mentioning Marito (in the photo), an expert in computers, a crazy little person, who, as Raúl wrote, nobody looks down on because he’s a giant. And Gabriel and Raíssa, from the Co.madre project, with whom I have so many friends in common in Brazil and yet we end up meeting in Colombia.
In evening bars, at parties, on long walks through the old quarter or over a beer while sat on the city wall, bathed by the sweat of our bodies generated by the heat and humidity, we unfurled loving relationships that went beyond our individual selves. They taught us about our peoples, our differences, our desires and our limitations. If the process of social construction is the result of cultural exchanges between people, then LABIC is also a laboratory of geopolitical integration. A laboratory of attachments.
For forthcoming editions I believe, moreover, that we need to put an even bigger emphasis on these times of social exchange outside the working environment. I came away with the feeling of having met a huge number of people, which I was delighted to do, but I was also left with the urge to know even more about each of them.
We are all currently linked in Telegram groups, we have made friends on the social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, we can support each other from a distance, and all of this is fantastic. Nor should we lose the spontaneous facet of relationships. But I would like to imagine a “cultural program” for the next LABIC, something that goes more deeply into this collegial dimension, generating even more potential connections. Because the truth is that this is a truly congenial process.
. . .
About the right to do and the right to tell
I recall a conversation I had with the activist Daniela Silva. It is published in my book A Onda Rosa-Choque — thoughts on contemporary networks, culture and politics. In this conversation, Daniela, who heads up one of the most active hacker communities in Brazil, the Transparência Hacker network, said that she saw herself as a “right to do” activist. This is a subject that has always been very powerful within the hacker ethical code. It directly opposes the politics of discourse, of too much talk and not much action, giving rise to an absolutely essential movement of people who want to transform politics with their own hands. In this respect, it means generating codes, processes and platforms to put democracy at the service of the common good – and not just a puppet of corporations. This spirit is the legacy of the do it yourself rationale, with the soul of punk culture and other tribes of dissatisfied people. Chris Carlsson, in his excellent book Nowtopia, calls us tinkers — agents involved in radical tinkering with the world order in search of tangible results.
What often happens is that this “right to do” also distances “common” people from participative processes because it creates a new layer of distinction: that of the lack of technical experience. It is not uncommon, after a marathon hacking session, to come up against the presentation of a project that only describes its technical characteristics and its development process. Listening to it, anyone might think that they are witnessing some amazing IT invention. But what is it for? Who does it serve? Hence the importance, in my view, of stories. Of that other programing language that comes from the language we learnt as children. A civic innovation project should tell a story, preferably one that focuses on people and the problem it solves – for the community and with the community. In other words, it’s not just about the doing but also about the telling.
During LABICCo, we worked on this issue very intensively. Right from the outset we asked that the projects should tell us their stories. The discourse was not great, as nearly everyone resorted to technical jargon or superficial narratives. Pablo Pascale, the laboratory’s coordinator, asked them to talk as if they were speaking to his mother, a not-very-technically-minded Uruguayan lady. Initially it was not very successful.
However, as the days went by the centrality of the narratives started growing. This was because the project leaders understood that communication is not just what we do once we have completed our project in order to sell or disseminate it. Communication should be an organic dimension of the whole construction process, because it is capable of bringing together different views, reducing gaps in understanding or those that can be generated by specialist terminology. With effective communication, more people can collaborate and cooperate in the project because they feel closer to it – communication is the basis of collaboration.
Let’s take as an example the Urban Interface Project for People With Disabilities. A bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? Proposed by a brilliant engineer, Argentine Gabriel Gómez, Gabo (in the photo), who is part of a technological development cooperative in Santa Fe, the project entailed producing sensitive technologies to help disabled people. The main feature was a board for using at traffic lights or bus stops to help people with sight impairments establish their location and move around with greater independence. At the beginning of the project, Gabo talked about cement, Arduino, connectors and the brilliance of Internet of Things technologies.
As the days went by, his multidisciplinary team started making contact with people with disabilities, including one of team’s own members, Luz González (in the photo). It was Luz, an amazing activist who is both deaf and blind, who headed up the process of raising Gabo’s awareness, with a project that ended up with visits to a foundation in Cartagena de Indias which works on these issues. That was when Gabo put himself in the position of a blind person. With his eyes blindfolded, accompanied at a certain distance by an expert, off he went on the streets around the headquarters of Fundación Rey to try to grasp the problems people face. And he realized that smart cities — i.e. ultra-connected ones — will not be remotely attractive unless they have walks (just simple walks) suitable for everyone (something that does not exist in Latin America as a whole). This was when they rechristened the project “My City”.
This was a very dedicated team and its participants produced a series of small prototypes, including a smart map of the streets around Fundación Rey, so users could make their way around independently. In his final presentation, Gabo asked us: “Do you know what we’re really talking about here?” No, we didn’t. But he did. And he told us a story in which technology was truly a tool for improving people’s lives. A moving story, on a par with his invention. It was not about utilitarian communication. It was a genuine recognition that, by communicating, by changing outlooks, people could get closer to the people with whom they want to cooperate. And this would open the door for these people, with their idiosyncrasies, to feel comfortable about sharing their knowledge.
I could keep on writing. But I’m going to stop here. Perhaps some additional notes will emerge as the days go by. Everything is still very vivid in my mind and sometimes I think that none of it actually happened; that we were just characters in a magic realism novel. I can also say that never before has the statement by Daniel Pádua, an activist in Brazilian digital culture, who died far too young, made so much sense: “We’ve got more than enough technology; the important thing is people.”