(Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash)

Launching Alt.Cmd [Alternative.Camden]

We need an alternative vision for the future of our cities.
We need an alternative vision for Camden. For London.

Growing digital monopolies, the creeping surveillance and monetisation of our personal lives, and algorithms making decisions in ways most of us don’t understand. Technological innovation seems increasingly focussed as a means to operationalise and control us. This leads to some uncomfortable questions — for each of us as individuals, and for the future of our cities.

The time to shape an alternative is now.

An alternative in which we don’t see new technology as a threat — but as an opportunity for us all to discover and reimagine our collective future. A key for unlocking our creativity as a society. What if, instead of compressing the possibilities of our future into technologies like self driving cars or facial recognition, we took inspiration from vibrant initiatives like Restaurant Day — a spontaneous event that began in Helsinki, where once a year anybody can open a restaurant and sell their home cooking. Enabled by social media and mobile technology, these types of people-powered events show us a different way of (re)making cities and having a sense of agency over their future.

Across the world we are seeing how our cities, neighbourhoods and lives can change for the better when people collaborate with creativity, passion and drive. Apps that bring us together for park runs, innovative community-led renewables, collaborations to reduce food waste, and open digital manufacturing workshops, show how combining technology and civic innovation can create a more inclusive society. Rather than a means to control us, technology then offers a way to build a city that is more entrepreneurial, healthier and more fun.

This forces us to rethink what we mean with words like innovation: from a narrow lense of ‘unicorn’ technology start-ups and venture capital investments, to an approach that recognises that all of us can be involved — both in imagining better cities and in discovering a new settlement between citizens, businesses, technologists and the public sector to get us to that hopeful future. We need to take this to the next level.

Introducing Alt.Cmd [Alternative.Camden]

That’s why today we’re launching Alternative.Camden (Alt.Cmd) — a new innovation district for London co-founded by Camden Town Unlimited, Euston Town, Dark Matter Labs, and Future Cities Catapult. Alt.Cmd is a test vehicle for prototyping a new type of economy powered by technology for the common good. The goal is to develop a new type of local, democratic institution for public good and innovation within the city. If that sounds like something you’re into, join the discovery.

In the wake of public outcry surrounding Sidewalk Toronto’s ‘neighbourhood from the internet-up’ (led by Google), we learnt that public legitimacy is not something that can be easily bought, but have to be hard coded into how and why we build our future cities and neighbourhoods. Places we can learn from — like Barcelona’s highly participatory open source iLab project — are already experimenting on this cross-over between technology and civic life. Especially in the context of Brexit, it is crucial to signal that London is pro-actively experimenting with tools and approaches fit for a rapidly changing world, yet at the same time, committed to much more inclusive, just model of how we get there. Alongside projects like the Mayor’s Civic Innovation Challenge, Alt.Cmd will be an opportunity for London to test and develop its own collaborative, inclusive technology enabled models for change.

Our aims are to

  • Start new conversations about the technologies changing our cities through co-designed and co-hosted public events, workshops and publications (see more below about how to get involved);
  • Initiate practical experiments by prototyping civic technology across a range of issues. Some of these might be highly visible and intuitive, others might delve into less obvious or thornier issues such as ethical questions around deploying augmented reality in public space, or new ways to raise funding for shared infrastructures like the Camden Highline based on voluntary data tracking of health and wellbeing.
  • Set up a testing ground, often referred to as ‘sandboxes’, to explore how shared rules and regulations, from the planning system or civic data truststo licensing, could evolve in response to new innovative technologies that require civic and regulatory oversight.

Alt.Cmd’s test-bed site includes Camden Town, Euston & King’s Cross. This area is a snapshot of London, being home to leading arts, culture and educational institutions, brilliant technology and scientific research organisations, and proactive and innovative local government. It’s a place where thousands live, visit and work everyday. But it also embodies some of London’s most acute challenges: from rising inequality and housing unaffordability to chronic air and noise pollution.

We hope this approach will be picked up across other cities in the UK. To that end, we will work in the open to share what we’re learning, what works, and what doesn’t. This mirrors how we intend to work locally, where we’ll work closely with local communities to involve them in emerging technologies and decisions that could shape their lives for the better.

Get Involved

It is up to us to remould the digital revolution we’re living through towards a radically more democratic, transparent and equitable future. We are still at the beginning of this journey, with some initial ideas about what this new open institution would be like. That’s where you — all of you — come in. If you’re actively engaged in your community, passionate about a challenge or injustice, are working within the Camden/Euston/King’s Cross area, or if you have an idea about how technology can help shape a more an alternative future for Camden — we want to hear from you.

[this is a condensed version of the Dark Matter Laboratories blog]

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