You can prototype a working project in less time than it takes to fill in an arts funding application, says Dan McQuillan
Prototyping, like that done at Kosovan Innovation Labs, is the new policy, says Dan McQuillan.
Photograph: UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo
As French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari would have it, the political economy of arts and culture is a striated space – marked by linear boundaries, restricted to particular planes of activity in the space of all possible potentials.
In this, it’s the same as most. But the mini-Mubaraks of policy and institution are challenged by hacker culture: through the affordances of technology, you can prototype a working project in less time than it takes to fill in a funding application. Prototyping is the new policy.
We started Social Innovation Camp weekends to kick off social projects using the ‘agile approach’ of digital startups. The approach combines rapid prototyping with asset-based community development, using the ability of the internet to aggregate and mashup solutions to social issues. People can start to tackle their problems directly, without waiting for permission from incumbent institutions.
How long would the Good Gym have waited for the NHS and social services to agree that the obesity-challenging energy of going for a run can also benefit the neglected tasks and neglected people in our communities? How long would the Home Office have deferred MyPolice, a platform for direct community feedback to the police? (Actually, they tried to stamp on it).
The hackday approach to protoyping social solutions is emerging all over the shop. Sometimes they’re bottom up, like the upcoming Digital Health Hack, or top down, like the Government Digital Service’s homeless hackday, or coming sideways out of a traditional NGO, like the first RNIB Hackathon.
Projects arising from such hackdays follow the path of the lean startup. They aim to get a minimum viable something-or-other out into the world, to test it against real needs. Like the web they’re in permanent beta – never finished, always adapting. Practitioners are, like AppsforGood, following the pedagogy of Paulo Freire by critically engaging with transforming their reality.
But what else makes prototyping possible? Partly, the substrate of net neutrality and open source software, along with a raft of emergent platforms like Ushahidi or the MySociety tools that turn the internet into a Lego set for social experimentation.
It’s supported by new disciplines like service design, the reorganising of a service or the creation of a new one based on the participation of users. New technologies like 3D printing act as a prosthetic for our imaginations, increasing the plasticity of reality and the sense of possibilities for social good.
Prototyping is a subjectivity as well as a strategy, a kind of hacker ethic. The original Jargon File of geek slang defines a hacker as: “one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.”
In the Tactical Reality Dictionary, hacking is: “a tactic for transforming pre-existing elements to evoke meanings not originally intended in the raw material of the hack.” As a participatory community process this has more authenticity than policy-based evidence making.
Crowdfunding alone won’t unblock all the old bottlenecks, although the claim that Kickstarter will disburse more money than the US National Endowment for the Arts is enough to make you sit up and think.
Crowdfunding and open innovation are part of a prototyping ecology that includes London hackspaces, Kenyan hubs and Kosovan innovation labs. As a wider movement it becomes a form of prefigurative politics, using modes of organisation and social relationships that strive to reflect the future society it seeks.
We can thank the geeks for prototyping the idea of prototyping – now it’s for us to turn it towards arts, culture and social good. To rephrase the Industrial Workers of the World, we can prototype parts of a new society in the shell of the old.
Oh, and by the way, have some fun trying.