DIY civil works for the 21st century
Residents of Kauai heard news that flood damage in much-touristed Polihale State Park would take the cash-strapped state two years and US$4 million to remedy, likely forcing several businesses to shut down. Eight days
later the repairs were complete. For (almost) free. Did the state
realize the potential impact on local business, get really clever about
sourcing supplies and kick the project into high gear? No. Residents
affected by damage volunteered their time and donated supplies to get
‘er done. Welcome to DIY civil works in action.
Horatio Alger bootstrapping, lack of stigma attached to failure and openness to change provide much of the scaffolding for the mythos that shapes attitudes in the United States – so perhaps it’s no surprise that Hawaii residents felt empowered to ignore the state’s answer and find a way to fix the park themselves. What makes this story potentially more interesting is when you align it with the current growing economic crisis and other DIY movements afoot. What happens when economic necessity meets DIY culture and a technological platform that enables massively networked coordination of resources?
John Geraci, founder of DIYCity.org, has a practical vision for participatory civil engagement by creating open-source tools that can draw upon the collective intelligence of city residents to find ways to create the city they want. Much like the Kauai example, citizens would be drawn together by a common frustration – say, inefficiencies in the public transit system – and collectively assemble the human and technological resources to make public transportation a better experience.
Unlike Kauai, however, the DIY civil works projects need not be in response to a crisis. These projects could simply start with the question “What would improve your experience of the city?” or “What would make your life more enjoyable? More fun? More satisfying?” The emergent nature of massively networked communications can coalesce a movement toward positive and creative changes that could not have been anticipated by rational, bureaucratic processes.
Moreover, the coalescence and focusing of human intent is only part of the DIY equation. The other part is enabling the physical environment to participate in the communication. Right now there are hundreds of projects in maker/hacker spaces that are bootstrapping technological innovations on the cheap. Many of these projects leverage wireless technology, inexpensive circuit boards and radio frequency tagging to create environmentally-responsive communicants that can be embedded within physical spaces. The Arduino open source electronics platform, for example, puts creating something like an iPhone-like accelerometer within the reach of a reasonably intelligent tinkerer.
Take the kind of focused human intent found in the Kauai example, empower it with inexpensive and accessible creative resources, feed it all into a massively networked platform for communication and collaboration – and, like the folks on Kauai, we need not wait for the state to set the agenda any longer. The tools for 21st century DIY civil works are in our hands right now.
April 14, 2009 Update: A great example of DIY civil works from Estonia