Digital as a force for Good

One thing that is definitely true about SXSW is that there is a strong representation from people whose main objective is to simply make life better for everyone.

There has never been a greater need for this: we are sleepwalking into an environmental crisis, over-population is causing our cities to swell beyond sustainable limits, our governmental systems are seemingly designed solely to increase wealth disparity.

Yet while these macro trends would seem to have us on the downward spiral, it’s gladdening, if not exactly hopeful (yet!) that there’s a counter-current of people who are riding our natural instincts to collaborate to make things better, and digital is enabling their efforts to grow and scale.

This key human trait is already demonstrable in businesses founded on the Sharing Economy, with the likes of Uber and Lyft being the most obvious examples. Their success is founded on the fact that humans don’t need much pushing to collaborate. The strictures of our current way of life that have broken down our communities and dissociated us from our neighbors are not as powerful as we might fear.

I’ve seen a lot at SXSW this week that shows how we can be brought together, and how our natural instincts to work for the common good can be enabled. It’s not too late to unleash our better selves.

Trying to boil down what is a fragmented and disparate set of people and activities into key trends is not easy. There are numerous players at work – from urban planners to artists, developers to story-tellers, community organizers to interaction designers. But while their techniques are many and varied, a common thread is that they work better when their skills are combined – delivering the visionary and the practical at the same time.

 

PLAY

Half the battle in improving our environment is making people feel better about it. Modern life has us rushing from point A to point B with precious little time for anything in between. But while we state that we love our cities, how well do we really know them? And how aware are we of the fact that our cities are vessels for generations of memories that can define who we are?

These questions were approached by a Bristol, UK based project called Hello Lamppost.  Simply using SMS, people were able to start conversations with items of street furniture, and these conversations led to the development of character and memory for each item, which informed the conversations held with the next people to ‘talk to’ them.

Play was equally important in Bubbleverse, an experiential experience created by George Ziziadis and Hilary Andujar, among others, for Nesquik chocolate milk. In it, people were immersed in the world’s largest bubble room, ‘trained’ in the art of bubbles by a Mad Scientist, and encouraged to share their happiest moments. While their talk was primarily about managing the balance between brand and art in the advertising world, they casually made the point that these kind of random transcendent experiences based on play can transform even the most dubious and cynical of us into a new person.

 

OPEN DATA

If a key aspect of better communities is that we are better connected, then data is bound to be the glue for our new connected culture.

Businesses and public bodies are rapidly realizing the benefits of opening up their data to the creative tech communities. In the UK, Tesco opened its product, availability and shelf location data so anyone can hack the products into sites or apps. Central crime, health, wealth and business statistics are available on a feed – even the prime minister’s office has built tools on top of them to keep him up to date.

Urban Planner Jake Levitas talked about how in the aftermath of Sandy, with federal resources at crisis point, a group of developers and community workers used whatever open data was available to help those in need find help that was on offer, even in areas knocked off the grid. As well as providing web services, their efforts were also translated into street signs, constantly updated, so show people the way.

But it’s not all serious – in an attempt to highlight the potential of public data, designer Emily Wright coded a system called Swirl.ly, which tracks where your bathroom flush goes as it heads through the sewage system and out to sea. The delighted Sanitation Dept rewarded her with their departmental t-shirts (logo: Your No2 is our No1)

 

THE NECESSITY OF INVENTION

But while data and the fundamentally decent nature of humans seems to provide a favorable backdrop for this nascent grouping of Civic Technologists, there are few tools and systems to make their life easy. Most corporate and financial systems are geared towards the upward extraction of capital, so how do you approach a challenge whose benefits are ultimately lateral – how do you make sharing pay?

The fact is that making the world a better place is a low-budget operation, so the community of Makers and hackers are frequently involved. Emily Wright again demonstrated this with her Color Me Timbers project – a small neighborhood art installation that nonetheless illustrates many of the points I am trying to make.

Having set up a Christmas tree in the front yard of her building, she wanted to get more people around her involved in it. So she hacked together an SMS number to some Arduino bits, enabling passers-by to text in to change the color of the lights. And because of … well, see my earlier point about Play, she decided it was to be a Pirate Christmas tree. A little bit of signage later, and she had brought together her apartment building and her neighborhood in a more meaningful celebration of Christmas than a thousand replays of Mariah Carey ever could.

Improvisation is being further aided by the mass availability of cheap IoT technology – useful stuff when you are operating at city or neighborhood level. Beacons, sensors, cell-connected devices, and of course Raspberry Pi and Arduino can be combined in infinite combination with only basic development skills.

My favorite grassroots (literally) example, was an entrant from San Francisco’s Urban Prototyping Festival. FruitFence is a breathtakingly simple ploy to transform chain-link fences into fruit and vegetable gardens through plants and bushes tied to them in bags. The simple addition of water sensors connected to an app or messaging system can then grow a networked community of gardeners who know when to water them.

 

IS THERE SPACE FOR BRANDS?

Of course, I’m a brand strategist, so I’m always looking for where these kinds of trends can work for brands. There have been plenty of examples of tactical work: VW’s Piano Stairs in Stockholm was a delight, as was Levi’s Station to Station. I’ve worked on O2’s Random Acts of Kindness stream in the UK.

There is certainly a need to tread carefully in this area – art, brand and community is a delicate balance, and it’s easy to imagine that brands can cause resentment or ‘try too hard’.

However, founding your brand in the community of people who use it is no bad thing. Where brands continually talk themselves up through their product, performance or price, there are relatively few who can credibly claim to actually represent their audience, and to deliver on that through their actions.

A brand who can make this claim, and continue to back it up through their actions could find fertile territory for years to come.

 

SUMMARY

In all honesty, I’ve never had much time for the community of Makers and Artists – it’s often hard to see how Arduino-fiddling and neighborhood hacktivism can impact at any scale on the very real problems we face today. It’s probably good to be writing this before the SXSW hangover kicks in and we return to confront more mundane challenges.

However, what I’ve learnt has enabled me to join the dots between the disparate branches of thought I’ve encountered this week, to identify three broad truths that may offer us some hope:

People are inherently good – We have very deep and real instincts towards our better selves. We are prone to share, to express and to help. We will at a moment’s notice shed the inhibitions and conceits that govern too much of our daily experience

Ubiquitous tech can be co-opted for community – You can get a Beacon for under $5, and that can digitally enable a location for up to two years. With smartphones everywhere and the growth of open data, digital experience is being democratized at a tremendous rate

This is a movement – Cold War thinking, driven by a blend of fear and ego, is fading in the maturing Millennials of today. With a global outlook, and jaded from repeated recessions, they’re spreading from art and academia into the public sector, planning policy and government. This generation, even when not actively involved, is more easily co-opted into collaborative thinking.

 

I think many brands will ultimately be able to benefit from the power of collaboration. Many of the best innovations do not come from the lab or the university, they come from much closer to home.

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