OT301: Autonomy by Dissent

Since the beginning in 1999, when a group of people squatted the old film school building at the Overtoom 301 in Amsterdam, autonomy had always been a central issue for the collective. Initially, their practice of autonomy was really squatters’ autonomy: the building had been extracted from the rule of market and state and was in fact an autonomous zone in which only collective, self-made law applied. Obviously, absolute autonomy did not exist for squatters either but there was a very strong feeling of being independent, self-reliant. Autonomy in this sense remains an essential value for OT301.

Today, the central question for OT301 is how to keep this kind of autonomy in terms of collective independence from hierarchy and boss while becoming a more professional or simply ‘better’ organisation. For OT301 this is not at all an easy question. Like may legalised squats in the Netherlands, have felt the ambivalent embrace of creative city policy. They have received a city-sponsored bank loan that allowed the collective to purchase their building. For OT301 this is indeed a mixed blessing. They did not plan on turning into property owners who have to comply with all the tedious rules and regulations that come with it. There is a clearly a feeling of having sold out to the man. However, there is also a strong realism, i.e., a general acceptance of the fact that in order to give OT301 a sustainable future, this was the only valid option. Having built one of the most exciting environments for cultural and artistic production in town also created the responsibility to ensure its survival. Not doing this would have been a crime against the multitude.

The challenge now is to fill the notion of autonomy with new practical meaning. OT301 are doing this by reinventing themselves as an open network revolving around the principle of dissent. This is to say that while searching for a new identity they discovered that they had abolished identity itself.  Instead, they accept the existence of dissenting values within the collective. Strictly speaking, OT301 is thus not a collective but a network. Instead of an organisation with an identity based on positive core values, they have constructed a political machine for constructing and connecting new worlds. There are of course negative values such as ‘non-commercial’, ‘non-racist’, or ‘not boring’ but there is no positive core value from which an identity could be constructed.

This is not a problem, it is great (but also exhausting): it forms the basis for the  kind of openness that leads OT301 to a timely practice of autonomy. The principle of dissent guards the autonomy – i.e., the autonomy of the different projects. It is in this sense that OT301 belongs to a new form of social composition called the multitude. In political philosophy, the multitude is in fact the non-identitarian figure par excellence. Not only is it different from the people (das Volk) in so far as it does not form ONE governable unit, it is also, strictly speaking, not made up of individual people (from Latin individuum “an indivisible thing”). Rather, the multitude consists of singularities. What this means is very simply that people are not assumed to be fixed in unchangeable entities but that there are more or less open processes as well. What they are (‘identity’) is assumed to be determined not just through their individual ‘essence’ but also through the relationships they entertain with people, situations, objects and so on.

In other words, identity cannot be understood outside its (ever changing) context(s). It is something that is constantly readjusted depending on changing relations. In fact, one might even say that identity is entirely determined by the different modes or instances of relating to the world. At which point identity dissolves in a process of relating. And this is why neither the multitude nor the singularities constituting it can have a proper identity. They are both different dimensions of a process of constant mutual readjustment.

OT301 seems to be a project that tries to really construct a home for the singularities of the multitude to live in. The will to endure struggle where once identity was supposed to be located indeed maximises the degree of everyone’s freedom and autonomy (to change and differ). An important question one might ask in this context then is how such a project can be held together at all if identity, core values and all the rest of it have been replaces by conflict and dissent. The answer to this lies in “a certain atmosphere:” a general willingness among the different groups/members to connect to each other –sometimes despite but more often because of existing differences. Paradoxically, this atmosphere might be one of founding dissent.

OT301 is famous for being a home of subculture. However, it is also a place for political and economic experimentation and invention. This is why we need spaces like OT301. They are essential for the creation of a future society that somebody would actually like to live in.

 

 

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3rd Space Invaders: Exploring the Future of Value

Last week, I hosted the first edition of the 3rd Space World Conference at ‘Seats 2 Meet’ in Utrecht. S2M of course is the most successful Dutch provider of coworking spaces based on a rather unique business model: coworkers do not pay for their workspace financially but socially, i.e., by sharing information, knowledge, expertise. There is more to this model of course but I have dealt with it in a previous post.

Back to the conference: the idea behind it was to create on very short notice a platform on which knowledge and experience could be shared for 24 hours, available to everyone inside and outside the global coworking community free of charge.

And it worked rather well. Granted, the shifting through the different time zones remained a bit patchy (there were reruns for a few hours) and some of the content (via skype) was not exactly overwhelming. Yet, the event was meant as a big experiment and as such it accomplished quite a bit. Here are some data:

The contributions of 24 speakers from 4 continents were followed by 1100 viewers in 31 countries with an average of 15 minutes viewing time. Close to 1400 tweets generated 1.7 Million impressions on more than 122 000 people.

So in terms of format this was a good start, also because the combination of the local and the global on a shoe string budget need to be tried out and will now be developed further. (bdw, Floor van Spaendonck of Virtueel Platform just told me that they did something similar two years ago in Amsterdam, so it would be interested to compare notes with them perhaps).

In terms of content, the event revolved around the notion of 3rd space which is one that comes with quite a bit of history. When I was studying in New York in the 1990s, “third space” was all the rage. The notion had originally been developed in the seventies by the French sociologist Henri Levebvre and had just been rediscovered by scholars in the social sciences and humanities. So I was quite surprised when the term reemerged in Joe Pine’s work with reference to the work of the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg (tho he talks about 3rd place).

Well, not really surprised. Lefebrve was not only a Frenchman, he was also a Marxist which might be why he falls off the reading list of those of the, say, more entrepreneurial persuasion. Mind you, in 1970s Paris everyone with at least half a brain was a Marxist. Lefebrve though was not your run-of-the-mill Marxist. He had also close ties to the Situationists whose experimental and playful attitude toward urban space as well as their rejection of work as dependent activity must have been – at least in my book – an inspiration for the coworking movement.

For Lefebvre, 3rd spaces are spaces of flow, spaces where spatiality is infused with so much social energy that it becomes almost literally fluid. They are place where space and imagination collide in such a way that they lead to something else, something other, something third. They are indeed spaces of experimentation and in some fortunate cases, visionary spaces, spaces that point toward future potentialities. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes in his book on topology: “Being-together is the necessary condition (Ermöglichung) of space.” I am not sure if this inversion of our understanding of space applies to all spatialities but it definitely applies to 3rd space.

3rd space was the notion that held the conference thematically together. For Joe Pine, who joined us from his home office via skype, 3rd space is the result of the technological blurring of the dichotomy between real and virtual. His ‘multiverse’ of the experience economy maps exactly the intersection of real and virtual and it does so in a rather elaborate way. His message goes something like this: know thy part of the market-multiverse if you want to be an effective entrepreneur today and in the future.

The multiverse according to Joe Pine

However, while Pine brilliantly maps the spatial shifts with regard to products and service he largely ignores the transformation of the space in which these products and services are generated today. In this sense, Ronald van den Hoff (S2M) was the necessary compliment to Joe Pine at the conference as S2M in particular and coworking in general of course represent exactly such a 3rd space of generation or “making”. In fact, the practice of coworking has the potential of altering the space of the market altogether. Remember, in conventional economics the market is imagined as an empty container-space within which goods travel to and fro regulated by price. To an extend, this remains the case even with Pine’s experiential multiverse. What coworking does, however, is transforming the space of the market into an n-dimensional topology by introducing all sorts of non-economic values into the market space. Coworking spaces like S2M interface space and digital virtuality in such a way as to afford serendipity. However, in order to be able to turn serendipity into economic value, investments are required that have nothing to do with what we call the economy and its logic. Of course, new ways of generating value also require new infrastructures, some of which were presented at the conference, for instance by  Teemu Arina (meetin.gs) and Hans Bilsen.

How does one communicate the value of 3rd spaces? Robert Govers, author of a number of books on branding, contributed a number of valuable insights on this question. To begin with, he surprised – or shall I say shocked – us with the claim that in order to function, brands must tell the truth. In a way, at least. What he said was that in order for a brand to be meaningful, it has to be authentic. In terms of place branding this means that image and place need to connect. Common sense, if one thinks about it but also something that in my understanding is exactly the opposite of most branding exercises, particularly when it comes to city branding. Which is, according to Govers, why it does not work. It will be interesting to see when the the office centres that rebrand themselves as coworking spaces are going to realise that authenticity is exactly what they themselves are lacking.

Obviously, the people populating 3rd spaces need a set of skills, attitudes and craftsmanship that is different form the one their industrial ancestors had. So education is an enormously important topic in this context and also one that “knowmad” John Moravec could only broach at the conference. It is true that we need to be rather imaginative in this area. However, and somewhat paradoxically, we also need to be very clear about the specific parameters that we want to use in order to set up a 3rd space of education as one of imagination, one that facilitates the formation of individuals able to navigate their tech-saturated environment as active contributors rather than passive consumers.

Perhaps this transformation is also something that the coworking initiatives in the more challenged regions of the world are aiming for. The impression we got from the contributions from Greece, Egypt, and Uganda at least was one of people looking ahead, trying to built a 3rd space in which future becomes a possibility again.

 

This is also one of the topics that the German coworking activists around Anni Roolf think about a lot. Anni also organises the global Jellyweek which is an event encouraging people around the world to form spontaneous temporary communities (jellies) for a week around specific issues, to work together or do whatever they think they should. This is also a way in which quite a few coworking spaces have come into being. Here one might refer to a 3rd space in the sense of a procedural space, i.e., one of which it truly can be said that “being-together is the necessary condition of space.”

And then of course there is China. Liu Yan always blows me away also because I found it so hard to get my head around how this society works. She runs Xindanwei, a Shanghai Coworking Space. Doing this seems to involve a bit of benevolent trickery. According to Liu, the problem rests in the fact that a coworking space is not a purely commercial offer or service. Which is why above I spoke about market topologies. Now these topologies, Liu says, are very difficult to understand for prospective users. Si in order to lure them in she has to sort of ‘downbrand’ her coworking space. Once people are in, they do tend to like it. So what we have got here is a rather interesting Trojan horse construction whereby Liu is tricking China into the 3rd space of coworking.

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Dom Sagolla and the 140 Characters

1. Last week Dom Sagolla, co-founder of Twitter, visited Amsterdam. Among other things, he gave a talk at Pakhuis de Zwijger. Theme of his talk was – unsurprisingly – past, present and future of Twitter. What was actually surprising was the (almost) absence of hyperbole  from his talk. Sure, there was the obligatory reference to Jack Dorsay’s “One could change the world with one hundred and forty characters.” However, his examples of how Twitter has been used in crisis situations and/or in certain political contexts were of very pleasant modesty. What he made clear is that the creators of Twitter have a rather realistic picture of what their communication tool can and cannot do. Twitter, in conjunction with mobile technology, offers an infrastructure that makes communication much faster and more efficient. This has changed the way we communicate and thus in itself changed the world. Based on the principles of simplicity, restrain and craftsmanship, Twitter has pushed communication technology into one of its possible futures. But that’s it!

It was really admirable to see Sagolla resist all attempts to engage him in infantile speculations as to the revolutionary potential of Twitter. And then towards the end of his talk he was sharing an anecdote that really made me think. It was about him hanging out in an internet café in Lagos, getting into a conversation with two American teenage girls. After a bit of introductory small talk, he recounted, he found himself loosing the battle for their attention against their smart phones. Disappointed, he thought something along the lines of “damn it, I am getting too old to be interesting for these kids!”, only to find them approaching him again after some time, asking for his autograph. In retrospect, he takes this as a sign of a new form of communicational agility, i.e., the ability to seamlessly switch between the virtual and real. In fact, he said, he should not have read their behaviour in terms of disrespect. The opposite was the case, they first googled him to see who in fact it was they were meeting. It was their timely, social media enhanced way of being respectful.

2. The question I am asking myself is what exactly happens to communication in Sagolla’s scenario. On one level (and perhaps this is indeed the only significant level), this is simply digital native teenager behaviour. However, I think there might be more at stake than just respect. What I am asking myself is: why did they not start bombarding him with questions instead being content with his signature? Again, this might just be shy teenagers’ behaviour. Effectively, however, what social media does here is to prevent communication from taking place, at least in any meaningful way. First, the young ladies retreat to the social media representation of the person they just encountered. Fine, they do their ‘research’. But even after they are done with it, they do not try to seize the opportunity to engage with the Twitter-man but rather ask for his autograph, i.e., another representation of Sagolla.

The problem is that in Sagolla’s anecdote, smart phones and social media become part of a techno-cultural assemblage (situation) blocking the creation of something like the affective infrastructure necessary for any act of communication proper. The Russian semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin called this the sphere “the dialogical.” Let me quickly elaborate on that. In order to understand communication, Bakhtin argued, one needs to first understand that the creation of sense and meaning is neither determined by language (structuralism) nor by the object (realism). Instead, the ‘place’ of sense production is the dialogical: the event itself of communication, an event that presupposes language – διά λόγος = through language’ – but does not exist in the system of language (or semiotics). The dialogical is an inter-individual, relational sphere where enunciations – words vitalised by but not entirely attributable to their authors – encounter one another, thereby potentially producing something new.

3. In other words, the dialogical is the dimension of innovation, the space where ideas, notions, concepts are allowed to dance around, potentially forming new worlds. In fact, it is the space that provides the something like the ontological infrastructure holding the structure of (inventive and innovative) communication. Richard Sennett latest essay is basically nothing but an attempt to elaborate the dialogical as the foundation of human cooperation (i.e., social creativity).

Nobody of course expects the little (failed) conversation in Lagos to change the world. But then, neither should one expect of 140 characters. Dorsay’s dictum is in fact a concretisation of Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” which, as we know, was an important step from Claude Shannon’s strict distinction between information and channel. The fact that one is limited to 140 characters of course determines the process of communication. What we need to understand is that the medium of communication involves much more than just technology. At least if one agrees that communication should be understood in terms of a creative encounter à la Sennett or Bakhtin. What is at stake here is the reinvention of the dialogical as interface between culture and ICT. At the moment, we act more like children or religious fanatics: we believe to be saved (from our very real social problems) by consuming more and more technology. Instead, what we need to develop are cultural technologies capable of seizing and embedding ICTs in a new dialogical generation of communicative events. A techno-cultural medium where message becomes communication. We quickly need to grow up and begin taking communication technology much more seriously, because, as the French techno-philosopher Bernard Stiegler remarks, today our psychic and collective individuation processes take place through them.

4. In the above incident the communication remained entirely flat, more like the clinical exchange of information Shannon had in mind while the dialogical disappeared and with it its entire creative potential. This did not happen because of something being wrong with the technology. However, that something went wrong should be acknowledged, rather than referring to ‘just the way the kids do’. Because here, they did not do anything at all. They remained passive.

Stiegler also refers to technology in term of pharmacon: something that can either be cure or poison. Some technology might be considered as purely poisonous but this is far from true when it comes to Twitter or social media. True, they have the potential of leading us into the shallows. But they also have the potential of enabling an unprecedented degree of cooperation. They can help us achieve incredible things, if and only if we will be able to reinvent the dialogical as interface between culture and technology. Only on such an interface will 140 characters be able to change the world (for the better, that is).

 

 

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Creative Thuringia

Last week I took a trip to the South East of Germany, to the city of Erfurt to be precise. The Ministry of Economic Affairs of the province Thuringia had invited me to present at a workshop around the theme “Space for Ideas.” This was also a launch-event for the new Creative Industries Agency the Province set up earlier this year with the purpose of supporting the roughly 20 000 Thuringians working in creative professions and also raising awareness within the province, country and the world that Thuringia has indeed something to offer when it comes to the creative industries.

This initiative is remarkable for a number of reasons. To begin with, in terms of a German province setting up a Creative Industries Agency, Thuringia is second only to Hamburg. The city state of Hamburg, however, is a creative industries giant in comparison – traditionally strong with regard to advertising, print, music and film and recently turned into a hotspot of the gaming industry. So a significant creative sector densely concentrated within a small metropolitan region: of course they have their own agency.

The province Thuringia does not even have a proper metropolis let alone a concentrated creative sector. The creative industries are rather scattered throughout medium and small scale cities such as Erfurt, Gera, Jena, Weimar. Hence the challenge here is a rather different one: one that perhaps begins with indeed raising awareness among the creatives themselves that they are part of a bigger development within the province.

The “Space for Ideas” event was a successful kick-off in this respect: among the 80 participants (from the creatives, entrepreneurs, government and other officials, city planners, etc) there was a clear sense of excitement and readiness to put Thuringia on the creativity map. There were three locale initiatives setting the tone for the discussion with a short presentation. Towerbyte from Jena, a successful network of e-commerce related companies that have recently finalised the planning stage of a new 10 000 m2 ICT building. As an interesting background to this story serves the – from an Amsterdam point of view rather positively shocking – fact that the city of Jena has a vacancy rate of 0 percent. Henriette Gruber presented Kreativetage, a great little space right in the centre of Weimar hosting artists and creative entrepreneurs (it felt a bit like Amsterdam’s OT301). Like all projects of this kind, they are struggling with the double-challenge of running the place and being entrepreneurs at the same time. Plus there is the ever-present gentrification threat due to the house’s top location. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it… Finally Robert Hollmann presented Coworking Erfurt which is a small space but a good start for a city like Erfurt.

Me and my German colleagues Peter Schreck and Bastian Lange shared some of our thinking on ways in which the spatial structures of our industrially configured economies might be turned into the topological spaces that are not only necessary for the creative industries to flourish but that might also pave the way towards a future economy that is much more effective in valorising knowledge and creativity. In the long run, the structural economic weakness of provinces such as Thuringia might well turn out to be an advantage in terms of building such a creative economy of the future. There simply is no choice: establishing sustainable creative industries will have to be a highly innovative effort as the traditional structures one finds e.g. in Hamburg are not there to fall back on. So Thuringia’s decision to set up a Creative Industries Agency could be a crucial step toward a proactive and future orientated economic policy. It is obvious that in order to be successful, the creative industries need to be part of an innovation ecology connecting them efficiently to the old economy.

So no shortage work for the new Creative Industries Agency. However, if this goes well we might be seeing a new model for economic development in the making (no pressure, Herr Kiefer!)…

 

 

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Appsterdam!

A while ago I was sitting in café Latei across Klaas Speller who is one of the people running an initiative called Appsterdam. The name Appsterdam had been popping up for a while so I wanted to know what sort of organisation this was. Basically, Klaas told me, it’s a network run by app-orientated programmers trying to build around their professional practice an ecosystem that is not only mutually supportive but also able to raise awareness around all sorts of issues around the social conditions under which they work. Networked politics made by nerds, I thought, sounds interesting. And a bit unbelievable (although there is of course the Pirate Party but this sounded much more hands-on and yes, somehow cool). I needed to learn more…

Turns out they started about a year ago with the objective of making Amsterdam the place to be for app makers. They launched a series of initiatives around network and knowledge exchange, such as weekly lectures, regular hang-outs (in my local pub of all places!) and family weekends in order to start building a bottom-up social ecosystem around the practice of app making. This seemed to have worked as today, the Appsterdam community has about 1000 members. And its not just nerds; there are designers, lawyers, artists, business people, academics, you name it. Tho I have to immediately add that those programmers I have met so far do not at all correspond to the dorky caricature one tends to have in mind.

This might also have to do with the fact that at Appsterdam there is a lot of emphasis on education and training. For instance, they offer speaker training which, if I understand it correctly, is meant to help the rather technically inclined app-makers to switch from programming language to English (or Dutch). They also do so-called Guru sessions, i.e., one day app-making crash-course for designers and other app-making related professionals (for next to no money!!!). The idea here is to make Amsterdam not just the place to be for app makers but also to be the best place in the world to become an app maker as well.

The ecosystem idea thus seemed to be more than just rhetoric. At this point I was game. So last Wednesday, I went to one of their casual “meeten and drinken” get-togethers. Over a plate of stamppot en zuurkool I talk to Mike Lee a.k.a. the world’s toughest programmer and mayor of Appsterdam. As Mike put it, its about “building a ‘place’ in which we really want to live and work.”  Which reminded me of the likes of coworking communities: the stuff about “building a ‘place’ in which we really want to live and work,” this notion of sovereignty sounded rather familiar. Of course there is more of a professional focus here and the physical dimension is rather secondary (as of yet, they are working on that with the Rietveld brothers) but nonetheless; it’s all about building a smarter and more timely kind of capitalism.

So he went on a search for the ideal place and he believes to have found it in Amsterdam, a place that he characterised as “a mix of Disney Land and Burning Man.” Would not be my description but well, the man is from the States :) And he’s also got a point somewhere.

He told me right away that he is not ‘running’ Appsterdam. “My goal with this organisation,” he said, “is immortality.” Great, you might think, a proper nerd, but not so fast. What he was talking about was bringing to life his idea of the perfect app maker’s ecosystem by letting go of the idea in order for it to turn into a real social network based on the practice of sharing. “So if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, this thing would continue to exist.” Alright, not a nerd but an open source hippy then!? Not exactly. This guy is a real pro, having worked for Apple and on apps such as Delicious Library, and Tap Tap Revenge. He talked about the practical ethos of sharing whatever helps one’s peers to improve their craft while only protecting that which is really necessary to make a difference in the market.

The situation right now is one of total and thus inefficient and sometimes outright silly copyright protection. They gave me the example of a corporation having been able to acquire a patent for the “shopping-function” of apps which allows them to basically enslave anyone using such a function for their app. Clearly that doesn’t make sense at all. Here capitalism is falling over its own feet (or rather its hyperindustrial prostheses it is high time to get rid of).

Activist academics like Laurence Lessig or Yochai Benkler have for a long time pointed to these problems. For them, there exists the possibility of hybrid economies which they understand in terms of the coexistence of market and sharing systems. The fascinating thing about Appsterdam is that they seem to be building a practice pushing beyond hybridity. Their vision – which is one built on practical professional experience – is of a smarter capitalism based on a topological understanding of markets. What they seem to have in mind is not the hybrid, i.e., coexistence of two pure spaces: one of sharing and of owning/competing. For them, the market itself needs to evolves into something that merges sharing and owning, involving degrees of sharing and owning, perhaps entailing a practice of only temporary ownership, etc. Hence the market becomes a totally impure space, one that emerges out of the professional practice more than being a clearly predefined container threw which goods travel back and forth regulated by price. In a word, it becomes a topology – a self-varying transformation, not unlike the coffee mug turning into a doughnut turning into a coffee mug. If you are willing to see IP in the mug and sharing in the doughnut. Or vice versa…

How is this future (un)market space exactly going to look like? Not sure yet. Of course not. However, Appsterdammers are working on an app that will map such a topology…

 

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Forget Knowledge!

With reference to knowledge as factor of production there exists a serious problem.  Since Peter Drucker’s first formulation of the knowledge economy thesis, forty years have passed in which the economic sciences have failed to produce an adequate theory of knowledge as productive resource. Michael Polanyi’s distinction between explicit and procedural knowledge remains the apex and main reference of economics’ thinking on knowledge but it does not tell us much about the nature of knowledge (other than that there are two kinds of it: tacit and explicit knowledge).

In other words, the notion of knowledge economy is tentative at best. What the discussion of knowledge (but also around even loftier terms like creativity) expresses is the need to depart conceptually from the notion of labour as the source of economic wealth. As naive as some of the discussions around knowledge, creativity, and the like often are, what they articulate is an attempt to conceptually come to terms with a certain qualitative shift with regard to the activities that generate value. In order to overcome the deadlock in the discussion of knowledge it needs to be  approached it not in terms of a new resource but as a virtuality: a creative process that emerges out of the convergence of human agency.

One can refer in this context to the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno who emphasises the poietic potential that is inherent to being in the presence of others, i.e., “the relationship with the presence of others, the beginning of new processes, and the constitutive familiarity with contingency, the unforeseen and the possible.” In other words, knowledge is something that exists virtually in between people not as anyone’s individual property but belongs to all.

The British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead invented the notion of superject that is helpful for understanding the nature of knowledge. Instead of knowledge belonging to different subjects, it is as a multiplicity of virtualities to be actualised by a creative encounter forming a superject. Whitehead’s notion thus emphasises the event-like nature of that which makes knowledge effectively come into being. Knowledge’s emergence as an identifiable, experiential phenomenon is based on a momentary conversion of a multiplicity of forces. The forces that form such multiplicity are not (subjective) entities either. They are relations because this is what forces are. So knowledge is a virtual multiplicity (relation of relations) crossing the threshold into actual existence by way of the formation of a superject.

Philosophical notions such as virtuality and superject are much less intuitive than ‘knowledge’ or ‘creativity’. However, they make visible the non-subjective, process-like character of that which today generates economic value. Call it knowledge if you like to but bear in mind that this ‘knowledge’ is not an economic resource like any other.

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What’s beyond the creative city? A report from Groningen

A few of weeks ago, I went to Groningen on occasion of the screening of “Creativity and the Capitalist City”. Tino Buchholz, the director of the film was as kind as to ask me to join in for the subsequent panel discussions.

Upon arrival in Groningen, we went on a guided tour through the city with Gerard Tolner, the city’s creative policy developer. Passing by the Museum of Groningen one could not help but notice its mid-nineties-postmodern-architecture-lighthouse character linking it to the first wave of creative city strategies of which Bilbao has become the metropolitan icon. Like many of the sub-metropolitan projects of its kind the Groninger Museum is financially struggling at the moment. What the project has given to the city is a new bridge linking the train station to the city which was an important trigger for the gentrification of one of the previously rather rough passages into town. Moving on to “Het Palais” (the palace) we get to know a more recently opened “creative hot spot.” This really is a palace, in the sense of being as beautiful as it is huge (9000 m2) with flats, studios, event space, a hotel, a restaurant and many projects such as a fab lab. This really is a stunning space and the great thing about it is that it has been created (according to its director) without subsidies. What they seem to have done is to work out an agreement with the housing corporation owning the building whereby the corporation allows for an extended amortisation period giving the project a realistic amount of time to pay of the investment. If this works out it will prove that with a bit of out of the box thinking one really can develop sustainable economic strategies.

Het Palais is located on the edges of the so-called Ebbingekwartier, a still slightly underdeveloped part of the city that has become home to small theatres and venues, all sorts of small creative businesses as well as workshops. It also features a rather large piece of empty urban space that is used as a lab for temporary architectural and artistic projects. Ebbinge quartier has kept a rough edge and has not (yet) fallen into the trap of creative monoculture that tends to terminate comparable projects after the funding has run out. If tenants and the city make an effort to safeguard these qualities, Ebbingekwartier has a great potential. I will come back to this later.

Off we go; next stop Puddingfabriek, a former squat that has turned itself into a successful music and culture industries venue with a professionally run event space that signals a radical rupture with the squatting culture of the past. A totally different place is the venue where the screening and debate takes place: the Oude RKZ, a former hospital and one time largest squat of the Netherlands. Here is where social innovation happens in the sense of ‘alternative cultures’ reinventing themselves in a timely fashion without losing their disruptive potential. Of course the place has been legalised years ago, there is affordable housing, concerts, exhibitions and so on, complete with a people’s kitchen and – like tonight – political discussions.

The film is pleasantly received and gives a number of impulses for a discussion of a number of local themes. What becomes clear very quickly is that while up to this point the creative city seems to be flourishing in this city of 150 000 inhabitants, 50 000 of which are students, there is a certain lack of ideas and concepts as to how to take this approach beyond itself into a broader and more sustainable future. At some point, one of the panellists – director of a big housing corporation –delivers an unsolicited explanation of what the creative industries is. Thing is, it sounds as if he’s reading it directly from the old ‘Creative Industries Task Force Report’ published in 1998/2001 by the British Ministry of Culture (DCMS). It goes roughly like this: Groningen aims at becoming part of an economy focussing on the development the concepts and design that will then be produced that will then be produced in the global south. The creative industries understood in this sense are the top of the value chain which is why a country/city/etc. has to focus its policies on developing this part of the economy.” Tony Blair put it like this: “Great Britain is the design workshop of the world.” The problem with this logic is that it applies industrial logic to the world of the post-industrial economy. It conceives of the entire globe as a factory with parts of say the “developed world” as its R&D department. It should be obvious that there are way too many self-acclaimed ‘creative cities’ than the world needs R&D departments. At least if one applies the old industrial logic.

The picture changes as soon as one considers what is happening in the context of the so-called creative industries as a first tentative step in the search for constructive ways out of the industrial logic. However, this would mean that instead of the rather silly competition for the most-creative-city-award, cities would understand the innovative impulse the creative industries provide in terms of inventing forms of organising and producing that are on par with our socio-technological state of evolution. Such an approach would look at the creative industries as a laboratory for organisational experimentation showing how small and networked is not only beautiful and innovative but also capable of reintegrating economic production into the urban fabric. This would be an approach to the creative city worthy of its name: economic activity moved back from the industrial and business park into the city. Which would of course also mean – at least one would hope so – a reintegration of the economy into the polis, i.e., into what we used to call society. There is a good chance such a move would make economic practice more sustainable: it is seems much more difficult to produce negative externalities if one does not hide in a business fortress outside the city.

Creative industries could give a real push towards such a timely, more integrated and this more sustainable arrangement. There are a few radical economists and philosophers who have criticised creative city policies as neoliberal strategies for turning cities into social factories. Here one would have the chance to give a positive twist to this situation; cities as topologies of value criss-crossed by networks of sustainable production that don not outsource the actual making of things to the cheapest territories but build innovation ecologies that integrate local craftsmanship and small to medium scale production capacities. The ‘mass rebellion against mass production’ is perhaps not quite here yet but there is definitely on the demand-side – to put it in strictly economic terms – a growing consciousness of the fact that mass production is only good for the corporations doing it. On the supply side, one finds a simultaneous expansion of opportunity for local producers whose client base grows beyond the physically proximate through intelligent usage of the internet (thinking here along the lines of “the long tail” and similar mechanisms).

Expanding their thinking and praxis in this direction is the logical and absolutely urgent step creative city planners have to take in order to really contribute to a structural “great reset”, i.e., the invention of the structures for a post-crisis economy. They need to move on from creative city policies and identify strategies worthy of spreading to the wider economy. The reason why the so-called creative industries are at the forefront of this development is that the forms of labour, products and services are easier to adjust to the future source of wealth that – for lack of a better term – we refer to in terms of creativity.

In this process city planners have an enormous responsibility in terms of facilitation and steering. For instance, much more needs to be done to counter the negative effects of the emergent network economy often summarised under the notion of precarity. This includes a rethinking of the role the creative avant-garde plays in urban development processes. This is something I found truly shocking not only at the discussion in Groningen but in regard to creative city strategies in general: the functional reduction of the creative movers and shakers who start revitalisation processes by occupying the ruins that eventually are being transformed into up-market real estate: they are abused as real estate price pushers. This is not even an ethical argument, it simply is waste of creative potential, particularly for cities and economies that label themselves ‘creative’. There is nothing wrong with city upgrades but if this is left to the real estate market what one end up with are homogeneous (read boring) city landscapes where only the big corporate brands are able to pay the lease. While such a (non)policy might work for the big metropolis – at least for the time that the creative avant-garde finds space to move on to (think, e.g., of Berlin: Mitte>Prenzlauer Berg>Kreuzberg>Neukölln) – for a relatively small town like Groningen this generates a dangerous situation that can only be countered by an active policy guarding its creative spaces.

It the light of these considerations, it might be worthwhile to think again before jumping into a mega-project like the forum, another creative lighthouse just much bigger than anything Groningen has of toady. Perhaps it would make more sense to focus on the great projects that are already up and running and put the city’s resources into facilitating paths toward a sustainable creative urban economy.

 

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Out Now! Das Beta Prinzip: Coworking und die Zukunft der Arbeit

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Creativity and the capitalist city

The documentary “Creativity and the Capitalist City” was released in early 2011. This is a bold film for many reasons, not least because the director, Tino Buchholz, has made the film without any previous experience as a film maker and no substantial funding at his disposal. He simply is a young PhD student in urban geography at the University of Groningen in the far North of the Netherlands who felt the urgency to use this medium as a means for research into the most influential urban policy paradigm of the past decade: the creative city. In concrete terms, the film is about the “struggle for affordable space” as the subtitle reveals, or, to be precise, about the most acute contradictions within the creative city paradigm, i.e., the fact that the only certain effect of creative city policies are rising real estate prices.

How is this possible? Is not the creative city paradigm built on the assumption that creativity (whatever that might precisely mean) is becoming the main source of economic value in the future economy? Yes it is. And are not creative city policies directed at attracting the most creative parts of the population – the core of the ‘creative class’ made up by artists, designers and all other professional groups who tend to bring the new into the world? The short answer to this question is: no, sorry, Richard Florida lied to you.

The script of creative city policy is taking the ‘core creative class’ into the equation only at the very beginning of the process. It roughly works like this: the creative avant-garde appropriate the underdeveloped, rough city areas, ‘upgrade’ them into hip city areas, which in turn makes them interesting for developers who turn them into upmarket real estate products. At this point, the creatives are gone, having made room for the less creative though established professionals who can afford to pay premium prices. What remains of the creative explorers is the ‘brand identity’ they have given the street, burrow or district and that real estate companies are now free to exploit. In economic science this is called ‘extracting a rent’. One could also refer to this as freeloading.

Tino Buchholz’s Film now looks at the curious case of Amsterdam that has risen to one of Europe’s creative capitals precisely because it has found smart ways to resist and creatively obstruct the mechanism just described (though it has got its share of real estate creative freeloading as well). One of those ways was to decriminalise squatting. “Was” because in summer 2010, the parliament passed a law banning squatting. Until this time, whenever a building was empty for more than a year and one managed to get a bed, a chair and a table into the building, it became rather difficult for the owner to evict the squatter unless they could prove to have valid plans for the building. This was social democratic practice in the Netherlands for about forty years.

This policy makes immediate sense if one realises the chronic scarcity of space in the Netherlands. So there is no need to be a squatter or even sympathise with them to understand that such a decriminalisation of squatting forces potential real estate speculators to keep their properties in use and thus socially useful. It also meant that in terms of the core creative class they were able to always find space through the rather elaborate organisational structures of the squatter’s movement. And it meant that Amsterdam had an enormously creative urban culture – in artistic, cultural as well as economic terms – based on a very pragmatic culture of appropriating urban space. So when Florida came along and intoxicated city bureaucrats with his stories about the creative class and how to attract it, the real creative class of Amsterdam shrug their shoulders knowing that Florida was only describing what they had long accomplished.

What needs to be mentioned in passing is that the law against squatting was perhaps the most severe onslaught on Dutch future economic prospects that we have seen in the past decade. This is not just due to the fact that the decision came at a moment when the vacancy bubble at the office segment of the real estate market has taken on epic magnitudes (almost 20 percent in Amsterdam) that even the sector’s notorious creative book keeping can hardly cover anymore. It is also a crime against the economic future of the Netherlands because for the last two decades, the cultural elite of this country has basically been recruited out of the squatting culture. Without much exaggeration, it can be said that any institution responsible for innovative social, cultural and economic practice has had some connection to the squatters movement. With reference to the American economist Michael Porter, the Dutch have begun to systematically dry out the perhaps single most important breeding ground of their own competitive advantage.

The fact that squatting was decriminalised did not, of course, mean that squatting was legal. In fact, bureau broedplaatsen, the city governments office for incubation space and second crucial factor for Amsterdam’s rise to the champions league of creative cities, was a direct result of the massive eviction wave that took place at the end of the 1990s. As a way of accommodating the sudden homelessness of hundreds of people as well as their often highly innovative cultural and social economies, the city implemented a policy that diverted the politics of squatting into an economy of ‘breeding places’ that supported communities and individuals in need of sub-market price accommodation for cultural and creative projects. This policy not only helped (international as well as home-grown) artists and creative types to find affordable workspace, it also made it easier to transform former squatting communities into legal entities (NDSM wharf is an example of the latter).

The third development that “Creativity and the capitalist city” thematises is the commercial practice of temporary tenancy, provided by the so called anti-squatting agencies. This practice is highly ambivalent as on the one hand it does make space available that would otherwise be simply vacant space while on the other hand, those occupying these spaces (aptly called “guardians”) have to sign rather harsh leases that often come with clear instruction as to the personal conduct of the guardian while granting none of the usual tenant rights.

“Creativity and the capitalist city” portrays these three phenomena and reflects critically on their role within the creative city game. The fact that it does not try to resolve the often ambivalent role that they play in the context of the creative urban development paradigm does not take away the importance of this peace of filmic research. Nor does the fact that the film lacks the cinematic qualities of say Fellini’s Roma. It is, again, a bold attempt to capture the particular Amsterdam experience of the struggle for urban space at a decisive moment of transformation. In this sense it is not just a film about the struggle for “affordable space” for those populating the city but also for spatial conditions appropriate for a future creative economy.

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Society in Beta

(I’ve begun the translation of our new book “the beta-principle.” Now we are looking for co-translators as well as a sponsor. The book is only 20 000 words so it shouldn’t be a big deal. If anybody would like to join, please let me know. I’ll set up a gdocs where we can collaborate. This is the translation of chapter 2. “society in beta” (still patchy, unfinished and totally beta) . Please spread the word!)

Process vs. System

Any attempt to understand the phenomenon coworking in general or betahaus in particular within a broader social context immediately runs into a problem: whatever it is that is happening there, it is hard to categorise it according to conventional sociological categories. Certainly, on the face of it, coworking is about the creation of space for entrepreneurial practice. However, even economists are increasingly coming around to the realisation that 21st century entrepreneurial activity cannot be fully grasp in economic terms alone. British sociologists Scott Lash and John Urry had already two decades ago pointed to this fact by arguing that postmodern capitalism means the ‘collapse’ of culture into the economy. With regard to betahaus and coworking, however, it should be clear that what is happening here goes beyond the simple fact that economic life has become affected by cultural semiotics  and communication.

The daily business of Betahaus represents a strange recomposition of economic, cultural, technological, political and social practice into a topology of coworking that cuts transversally through the traditional social systems – say in the sense of Niklas Luhmann. What one observes here is nothing more or less than the attempt to reinvent the social practice of value generation in a timely fashion.  For betahaus, the name is the game: beta means permanence of the unfinished and perpetual experimentation; which amounts to a rather disrespectful deconstruction of the traditional social systems as well as their innovative reconstruction in a continuous social process.

The following pages provide a sketch of betahaus’ process topology within the broader context of the phenomenon coworking and analyse it in terms of both its strengths and weaknesses. In doing so, our intention is also to investigate how the beta-process relates to the traditional social structures; how it challenges them and how it is trying to find new ways of integration. It would of course be naïve to assume that betahaus could simply experiment at large without taking existing social structures – however obsolete they might seem – into account. The strength of the process orientation (beta-principle) lies exactly in the attempt to tap the different social subsystems in such a way that innovative tendencies are appropriated while the rest is left behind. Whatever is deemed useful one tries to integrate into the process and if it does not work, it will be ejected again. It seems obvious that such a process of trial and error produces friction and risk. Success and failure of a coworking space are also decided on the question of its ability to find effective solutions to these challenges.

Technology

In academic literature, the network economy has been heralded for at least two decades. However, the phenomenon coworking proves for the first time that the ongoing digitisation of labour can have a truly positive effect on the material working environment. Coworking spaces are made possible by the fact that for an increasing proportion of jobs the infrastructure problem is solved by buying a laptop. The internet takes care of logistics. Communication takes place via Skype, Voip, Twitter, Facebook, linkedin and so on. However, in order to transform old style labour and entrepreneurship in ways adequate to this techno-cultural state of development new forms of organisation are possible that give the precarious multitude the chance to take the tools of (entrepreneurial) emancipation into their own hands.

From a technological perspective, betahaus can be understood as a space materialising the experience of web 2.0, i.e., a space that brings social media back from its purely virtual existence into the real material working environment. To put it simply, the idea behind this coworking space was to build a face-to-face-book: a platform combining the digital and the real in order to facilitate a mutually supportive community. The motivation of the founders was to end their own isolated and precarious work situation and build a place where they would really like to work. What they might have achieved is finding one possible way of transforming the atomised precariat into a mutual supportive community (of coworkers).

The intelligent and timely appropriation of digital technology opens up a topological space that in economic terms is neither market nor firm. Instead it is a platform creating opportunities for an active and self-determined participation in the global network economy. This is important economically in so far as it provides the timely alternative to neoliberal practices Sennett criticises such as outsourcing and reengineering. The latter tend to use ICT as a way of avoiding organisational development (say, à la Schumpeterian creative destruction) by digitally pimping the old industrial systems. What results are neo-Fordist organisation zombies making everyone miserable and preventing new organisational life from emerging.

betahaus by contradistinction uses ICT as a tool helping to constantly (re)build a communal platform for economic participation. What we see here is a first important step toward (an) organisational form(s) appropriate to the central source of value creation in the 21st century. One might refer to it as knowledge but only if one avoids to think of it in terms of a resource waiting somewhere for its exploitation. Knowledge is not a resource but a virtuality, i.e. a potential existing in between human beings and their brains. Its physical form and concrete impact, however, unfolds only through the creative connection of these brains (Lazzarato 2002). Progressive economic science refers in this context to tacit or procedural knowledge. Simply put, one might say that value creation today depends increasingly on the ability to establish connection between brains. And nothing else does coworking attempt to accomplish. This is precisely the reason why spaces like betahaus are open, non-hierarchically and decentralised in their organisation structure: because this is the ‘physical condition’ of the virtuality knowledge. Knowledge indeed does belong to everyone and no-one. Which is exactly why the preferred space of knowledge is the metropolis: here it finds the highest density of creative brains and connections (to other creative brains); here knowledge unfolds at its most effective. Two MIT economists have recently discovered that that economic innovation depends on “unexpected conversations.” Where is the probability of such unexpected conversations taking place higher than in the metropolis where the multitude lives in close proximity, communicates, shares ideas, resources, goods? In this sense it is absolutely appropriate for Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri to refer to the metropolis in terms of a huge “social factory”

Today’s generation of precarious (knowledge)workers and entrepreneurs embrace a place like betahaus because they understand – at least intuitively – that such a radical transformation is going on. Coworking is simply something like the natural form of organisation for the urban social factory. The reason for this – and here one enters the political dimension of betahaus – is that the gates of the social factory open only to genuine participants in the open, non-hierarchical en decentralised networks. In other words, coworking à la betahaus entertains the potential of altering the structure of the good old market by introducing ‘currencies’ such as trust, fairness, openness, the willingness to share and broker contracts. And this happens in a coworking space like betahaus with an intensity that makes the shift from the empty Euclidean space of the market to topology more than evident. There are even elements of a Bataillian “gift economy” at least in so far as giving and sharing rather than competition provide the procedural foundation fot the coworking topology – mere predators face more or less prompt ejection.

Politics

There is also an immediate political dimension to all this. In spite of their flexible, ephemeral and dynamic nature, coworking spaces like betahaus can also be seen as platforms that increase the precariat’s bargaining power. One practical way of doing this is the mutual disclosure of fees and rates in the sense of a communal “Hey, are much are you actually asking for a comparable service/product?” Beyond such basic forms of communicative action, betahaus is programmed in such a way that emerging questions and problems can immediately be turned into workshops, seminars, events and the like. This is one of the crucial meanings of ‘beta.’ This is emergent, selforganised (mirco)politics.

In the context of coworking, the appropriation of urban space by the multitude is a thus a process of pushing entrepreneurial practice toward a topological arrangement combining economic contribution with new forms of social , cultural and political participation. And it is in this sense that coworking has the potential of contributing to a topological reinvention of citizenship that put economic value creation right back where it belongs: in the centre of the polis.

I am of course by no means arguing that this is even close to solving all the problems caused neoliberal politics and economics. However, it does confront some of them in pragmatic and effective ways. And it does so by way of practical trial-and-error. Since the network party is a contradictio in termini (notwithstanding the new Pirate Party) what one might expect from these spaces is the development of nonrepresentative, new forms of politics. Putting hundreds of more or less precarious networkers in one room, trusting that the assembled interests will find their adequate expression and then facilitating it seems to be one way to go about it. Political bargaining power is being built here on the back of convincing entrepreneurial practice. Perhaps it is possible in this context to speak of viral politics: spreading an idea by way of practice.

 

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