Experiments for Camden

tl;dr —A group of people joined us on Feb 9th to design and pitch ideas for a future Camden (all of which you can find here). It was pretty fun, and if you fancy joining next time, let us know, or tweet us @altcamden #alternativecamden

One of the ideas from the ideas day was to run an AR arts programme to test both new ways of learning in and around Camden, whilst at the same time to understand what ethical standards and regulations could look like for augmented reality — Photo by Kevin Jarrett on Unsplash
  • People got into groups to take on four different topic areas; finance, data, governance & economy.
  • We came up with around 50 ideas — some wild, some spot on.
  • Below are some ideas where we think could we actually get started.
  • We want to keep this an open a process as possible — so if you’re already working on this stuff let us know, because we want to know how we can help.

Ok. A little more detail.

What came up?

The four themes we started with — finance, data, governance and economy — people brought out problems they experience in their day to day. Throughout these discussions a consensus and some shared feelings started to emerge:

  • We find it hard to address (or even discuss) ‘data’ — data collection, data privacy and ethics issues, as data itself is fairly intangible — either making us feel pretty ambivalent about why we should care, or giving us a mild form of anxiety about just how much of our lives is being collected and used on a daily basis, and how it’s being used against us.
  • Climate breakdown — this was a running topic, and arguably an issue that’s never been more at the front of our minds. Despite this, there’s very little happening at a local level to help ‘decarbonise’ our daily life. It’s still expensive and complicated to do it for your own home, or your street.
  • Playing by the rules — We don’t trust the fairness of the rules that govern our neighbourhoods — when most of us actually experience regulation (eg. air quality zones or noise pollution fines), often those experiences fall into two categories. The first is that the actual substance of the rule or regulation doesn’t seem to match up with the full scale of the problem it’s trying to address. The second is that these rules often fail to take into account the specific context of where the problem happens, because they’re designed to be universally and efficient. This can slowly change our perception of what’s fair or what’s effective when comes to the rules we collectively decide to trust.
  • Recycling — Our current efforts around waste and recycling feel pretty insignificant when it comes to taking on our global waste problem. On top of that, there’s a real disconnect between the efforts we do make (like separating our packaging into the magic recycling box) and actually having the assurance that it won’t end up being burnt half way around the world, or floating across the Pacific.
Use the magic recycling box and all will be well.

What became clear through these conversations was that often the problems at a local level reflect much deeper more systemic ones. This is often something we feel rather than have explicit evidence of. And that’s important. That asymmetry, between what we’re being told the problem is, and what we feel it to be, can stoke a deep sense of unease and distrust. Meaning that if we’re going to propose new ideas one of the biggest barriers we face from the outset is distrust in whether it will actually work. As we dug into this a little, we began to discuss in smaller groups and voice ideas for taking this on. Here’s what we came up with:

Some first ideas:

  1. Balancing noise pollution & the 24hr city — Smart Noise License
    Moving from a paper-based, one off way of regulating and enforcing noise pollution, to one that’s real-time and dynamic. Meaning we could create digital license for temporary events, like a music venue, a one-off gig or a pop-up theatre performance anywhere in Camden.
  2. Unlocking sites to build more homes — Data Driven Planning Rights
    A prototype for linking available plots of public land, with the live data needed for planning permission. This could be a type of automated ‘permitted development’ to test new ways to verify site information (eg. based on satellite imagery, or photo uploads), and provide a new test site for the work already being done by the GLA, and other boroughs in London.
  3. Regulation for tech in public space — An AR Festival
    Imagine an interactive arts festival who’s purpose was to literally paste and alternative future across Camden using virtual and augmented reality. This could be with schools, artists, or gamers — and prompt discussions about how we make regulations in digital space.
  4. Understanding the rise in cost of living — Real-time Inflation Data
    Develop a data scraping tool that gathers real-time information about local fluctuations in the price of everyday goods and services.
  5. Reducing waste — A Right to Repair
    To bolster the repair cafes we could test out a new ‘Camden warranty’ and insurance contract for things being refurbished locally. It could be straight to your phone, and perhaps eventually have a smart contract between the original manufacturer, parts suppliers, repair centre and customer.
  6. Understanding ‘Creepy’ data — A Community Data Trust
    A new type of democratic meet-up for governing and regulating data made in public space. putting public data in the public realm so that anyone can use it for common benefit.
  7. What can we actually do about climate change? — Decarbonise My Street
    A platform to support the local transition to low-carbon energy and efficiency improvements, street by street.
  8. Un-privatising the Job Market — Real-Time Camden Jobs Market
    In an ages of social media, more and more jobs rely on ‘word of mouth’ and social networks. What if we created a platform to pool data scraped from job applications, and matches them with CVs and skills across the Camden area? Making the job market more transparent, and more targeted at the same time.

Figuring out where to start…

It’s alright having ideas, but figuring out how to do them is way more tricky. So to move forward we needed to define a set of working parameters for selecting the first round of ideas. We thought the aim should be to create the biggest knock-on effect with what we spend the next chunk of our time doing, as well as to build trust by actually getting something done for Camden. All of the ideas from the day were great, but some were more complex and long term than others. Figuring out how to re-write intellectual property rights for a circular economy, might take a little more time than testing a new service for Camden repair cafes. Both are vital, one is a better place to get started. So we came up with the following criteria to decide where to begin:

  1. It can actually have an impact — addresses a problem that many experience and is something that will make a tangible difference to the people of Camden.
  2. It’s structural — whatever we choose must reflect the scale & complexity of the problem its trying to address, and it’s also relevant to multiple ideas.
  3. It’s something we can actually do — ie. it’s feasible and we’re able to create an outline of how we might do it, during the next few months.
  4. It’s relatable and tackles a real problem, and is something you can understand without too much domain knowledge or expertise.
  5. It’s an exploration — gives a way to test how citizens and institutions can work and collaborate together, or a new tool they can share. Also, it would help if we can learn from it.
  6. It’s a‘greenfield’ idea, it’s uncharted territory— either completely novel, or aiming to fix something that people have given up hope on. Meaning it doesn’t need too much buy-in from other institutions, government departments or organisations to get started.

We hope those first eight ideas above reflect these working principles, and we’re keen to get started. As we move on from here, it’s important for us to keep questioning what Alt.Camden is, and how it’s useful. During the day we took some time to reflect on this.

What should we use Alt.Camden for?

The important questions to keep at the forefront here are, what should we use Alt.Camden to do? Which ideas would be the best way to start doing this? And how should we work to keep this process open and accountable?

From the outset the discussion focused on two things. Firstly, the need to repair trust between citizens and their institutions, and to do this locally (ie. at a borough or neighbourhood level). This means going way beyond consultation and opinion gathering, and to start testing how we can hard code democracy and new models of collective decision making back into the systems we rely on everyday. Some of this will be about making the most of the new possibilities technology offers, other times it will be about new behaviours and attitudes of how we work together.

The second thing will be to test out new models of regulating for the future we’re already in — like how our travel data is used (and sold), or how we know if we’ve got a fair price when searching online. Right now, a lot of how we make and set these rules (especially on things like air pollution, or noise complaints) are done on paper, at a single moment in time, with rigid ways of measuring them — even though we know the problems can vary hugely from one street to the next, and over the course of the day. So how would we start to test ways of compiling data, from say peoples phones or street sensors to make regulations real-time and context specific? What privacy issues does this throw up? What trust issues does this highlight? And what new types of power dynamics does this create when we feel like we’re being relied on (sometimes without knowing it) to supply data, and being monitored in the process?

But perhaps the most important question we should keep asking ourselves about Alt.Camden is why do we need something new? Why do we need Alt.Camden in the first place? Isn’t this a job for government? What was notable was an agreement in the need to find new ways of organising and creating public value at a local level, in ways that are bolstered by the use of new technology rather than being outpaced by it. We need ways that can test and ask questions about how our world is changing that resonant with people, rather than always be pressured to find immediate answers. On top of this we have never been more aware that our traditional public institutions are struggling, and that they can’t create this future alone. Local government is threadbare, regional government sometimes lacks the definition and the legitimacy it needs, and national government is somewhat…preoccupied.

What’s next?

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll begin to flesh out these initial ideas to understand how they could work; where we should start, who could be involved, and how long they might take. At the same time, we’ll be getting in touch with people to hear how the problems that came up manifest on the ground in Camden.

If you want to talk, chat or help out — you can find us @altcamden or through the website.

Big thanks to everyone who was there and who has contributed to the process so far :) @Camden Giving, @ClimbItBros, @CamdenCollective, noelito, Smart London @DannyBeales, Kwik Sweep, Foundbite