12 Principles for an Architecture of Participation

September 28, 2008

These are non-constraining, open-ended, and adaptable principles for an architecture of participation that can be used by any group of people, NGOs or urban planners interested in activating the collective intelligence of a community. Here, we use the example of city planning, but the principles are adaptable to the development, coordination, or management of various types of open systems, including corporations or software development.

1. NEED IT: Necessity is the mother of invention. What do you need, as an individual and as a community? It is not for master planners to guess what people need. Stakeholders should speak up.

2. GET IT: No need to reinvent the wheel again. Lets find what works elsewhere and adapt to the local/present needs and then expand it.

3. DO IT: You don’t really understand the problem until after you start implementing the solutions. It doesn’t have to be an all out “redevelopment”, we can start small and gradually build knowledge and best practices. This will develop the social and cultural capital of the community.

4. BE OPEN: With the right attitude, interesting (and unexpected) issues will come up and make the plan & development better.

5. SHARE: Do not feel proprietary about the plan. Or rather, let other people feel proprietary about it as well. The common goal is to have the best/optimal solution for all.

6. CONTRIBUTE: Residents should be co-planners and co-developers. The concerned population is the biggest asset for and of planners.

7. COMMUNICATE: The plan should be publicly accessible to all concerned parties at all times. Updates should be frequent so everyone has access to the latest information and can react immediately. Say what you have to say and listen to what other people have to say and immediately incorporate it. It can always be modified/adjusted along the way.

8. CONVENE: If we have enough people looking at different aspects of the plan, any issue can be recognized and addressed quickly. Finding the issues is the biggest challenge. Once identified, someone will have an idea about how to solve the problem.

9. INCLUDE: Finding an efficient way to get everyone’s input is more important than the inputs themselves. A lot of time and attention should be spent to cultivate the community’s active participation.

10. ACKNOWLEDGE: If participants are treated as the most valuable resource of the plan, they will become the most valuable resource of the plan. Contributions should be acknowledged and valued.

11. PROCESS: We should strive to activate the collective intelligence of a community, which also means processing, selecting and incorporating good inputs into the plan. This may or may not be the task of a sub-group of people acting on behalf of, and accountable to, all stakeholders.

12. BE CRITICAL: Realizing that our concepts are wrong might lead to the most striking and innovative solutions.

These value-based principles will lead the plan in a certain way. They are self-consistent and mutually reinforcing. These principles have been proven to work very well for the development of complex systems over time. They are actually based on an analysis of the success of the legendary open-source operating system Linux.

We “hacked” these 12 principles from Eric S. Raymond’s groundbreaking essay of the organizational principles behind the development of Linux by a global community of programmers (The Cathedral and the Bazaar, 2001). We simplified them and tentatively adapted them to the field of urban planning. Eric S. Raymond himself formalized the principles that Linus Torvald followed with the success that is now legendary. Eric S. Raymond also successfully tested these principles for the development of “fetchmail”, an email application.

These principles are still at a nascent stage and we hope that with time and practice they will get defined better. After all, we are still pretty much walking in the dark as far as participatory planning is concerned, so it might be wiser to abstain from organizing these principles too tightly. People should adapt them according to their own objectives, context and experience. We encourage everyone to propose new versions of these principles on this blog or elsewhere.

These principles echo a mutation in knowledge and information systems, characterized by a new consciousness emerging amidst a confusing mix of ideas, which question established hierarchies and blur the boundaries between fields of knowledge. When some wires cross, especially between information/communication theory and urban planning, new systems come to life, new energies are unleashed.

The future is in the periphery

September 22, 2008

This sentence stayed with us since we first heard it from Yehuda Safran, one of our mentors and inspirations. We were at a workshop in Taichung, the third biggest city in Taiwan, which aimed at producing ideas for a leftover industrial site called TADA. While the site was not itself in the periphery of Taichung, the city certainly was in the periphery of Taipei the capital city, and Taiwan itself is in the periphery of China. At a time when all eyes are turned to the urbanizing dragon, what meaning could this dead site in an unknown city in a doomed country really have?

Well, it probably has as much meaning we can infuse it with. We imagined how much of a place of creation that old industrial site could be and devised 99 rules to preserve freedom and stimulate the imagination. We were so stimulated by that place onto which we could project our wildest dreams that we produced a small book, the TADA Manifesto, in four days. For a moment that abandoned brewery in the middle of nowhere was the most inspiring place on earth. It was full of potential because we could make it ours.

New York was creative when no one was looking. SoHo, The East Village, the Lower East side in Manhattan and more recently Williamsburg in Brooklyn were cultural hotbeds for as long as the city was bankrupt and these places were ignored. That’s when people like ABC No Rio and CBGB could squat buildings and Futura were spray painting subway tunnels, when artists that are now established, recognized and often not so inspired anymore, were still crackheads, rebellious gays, punks, bums and squatters. There was nothing there to see. No hype and no romance. These much venerated places were at the periphery of a city on the verge of a breakdown.

Now that New York is universally recognized as a creative city all we see instead of artists are art directors, graphic designers, ad producers and their like. Established and wannabe communication professionals, commercial artists and other marketers come enmasse to such cities, where they know there is an industry that can use their know-how. Rather than breaking new grounds this so-called “creative class” recycles tired clichés and remixed proven formulas. New York is good at attracting people from elsewhere, but doesn’t breed much local talent anymore. Of course just like everywhere, pockets of innovation remain. New York is big enough and its periphery is full of creative tension and driven people. But as a rule, creative work seems to happen where no one is looking.

Some type of “observer effect” seems to be at work. Once too many people start observing and pointing out how creative a place is, it stops being creative (Berlin is recognized as one of the most creative city in the world right now. That must be the beginning of the end). Nothing messes up the creator’s work more than attention to the public and the media, let alone the market. What will they think? Should I be more/less explicit? Is this over the top? How can I justify my creation? How can I make it a commercial success?

The creative process is profoundly egocentric, free and subversive. It seems to come from a visceral need to project the self onto the world, but only really for the self’s sake not for the world. The world can go to hell. Indeed the creative act is usually destructive, at least the risk of destroying what’s around can’t stop it. As the creator dives into the self and indulges in the most gratifying self-expression, he abandons himself and the world to his creation. As if the creation had to happen at all cost, even at the expense of the creator’s own existence. Creation drives the creator, not the other way around.

Take for instance what is happening in the periphery of Geneva at the moment, at the CERN, where scientists have built the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator complex (LHC). They try to confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson, a hypothetical massive scalar elementary particle that exists only in their theories by recreating the condition of the big bang. The experiment was supposed to start this month but because of technical problems it is delayed. We’ve heard that some scientists had concerns about the possibility of this experience creating a black hole that could grow and swallow the universe. Of course CERN-commissioned safety reviews have concluded that the risk of complete destruction of the universe is extremely small, even smaller than the possibility of a technical problem happening at the LHC.

After all, it would be a shame to call off the experiment after so many people put so much passion into it, right? In fact they can’t stop it. They are absorbed already. The drive to create is what keeps us going in the face of emptiness and what drives us into it. When there is nothing but a hole at the center, our best hope is the periphery.

Download the Tada Manifesto (41 MB)

Airoots Interviews Arjun Appadurai

September 21, 2008

Arjun Appadurai is a cultural-anthropologist born in Mumbai and living in New York. He specializes in issues of globalization and urbanism. He is the founder and president of PUKAR, a research collective based in Mumbai. He is the author of many classics on urbanism and globalization including the groundbreaking Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. A detailed biography is available on his website.

This is a short version, the full interview is available here.

Arjun Appadurai and his wife Carol Breckenridge

Airoots: With regard to your essay ‘the production of locality’, how would you present the notions of ‘agency’ and ‘participation’ in the context of urban activism?

Arjun Appadurai: When I wrote that essay (which became part of the book ‘Modernity at Large’ published in 1996) I had in mind the sense that societies, their values and structures – so far portrayed as if they were habitual and unthinking responses – were in fact the result of intention, design and conscious effort against various political and contextual environments and pressures.

The original argument was that large areas of ethnographies of the local were actually descriptions of the labour of the production of locality. In this sense agency, design and effort were important for traditional societies and this effort had relevance to globalization as well.

At that time, I did not articulate the idea of agency as part of the argument. (There did exist a sizable body of work that used agency as a basis of understanding social change). However, if I had to do that now – and it certainly begins with the idea of labour in the context of social survival – the mediating idea would be that of ‘collective agency’ (in the way that theorists like Roy Bhaskar have articulated). In this sense agency should not always be seen as an aggregate of individual choices but as something essentially social or collective.

Thus the production of locality is a symptom of collective agency. However, the qualification to that understanding is that it is not equally distributed and embodies the differences and hierarchies that emerge in collective interaction. But what is important to note is that the product – as a social force – is more than the sum of the intention, wishes and energies of any individual in the group.

Agency implies activity; action rather than mere behaviour. This also suggests that a social dimension is inevitably tied to the project – in the sense that a project is a design, a projection or a vision. In this light, the production of locality can be seen as agency that involves design and vision.

Dharavi, Mumbai 2006

Airoots: What are the problems with the concept of participation?

AA: Words like empowerment and participation can descend into clichés very easily. It is more or less meaningful in alliance with other concepts – like informed citizenship. Thus a participant is significant if he is a more informed participant. However there is something more that has to be factored in. Along with being informed, we have to ask the question if the participant is given a voice. A woman in a movement may be highly informed – but does she have a space to articulate her views and ideas. Does she have a voice? The importance of movements like that of Aruna Roy fighting for the right to information is vital since it affects grassroots movements in a big way. However it is vital because this right to information immediately expresses the idea that the informed citizen has to have a space to be heard as well. Otherwise a highly informed and aware citizen can be silenced even through custom, traditional structures and other mechanisms of control. […]

Airoots: With regard to individual and collective control – when does collective control start to violate individual freedom?

AA: […] At the grassroots level alienation sets in at two levels: One when your voice is not heard and second when you are forced to go along even when you don’t want to. My own experience comes from my observation of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, SPARC and other groups.

My discovery (or rediscovery) is that individuals do count – and that individual freedom and dissidence is an integral part of the way in which these organizations function. However there is something more than just looking at these spaces as places of control and dissent. These are also spaces which function on long-term friendships. And friendships is between individuals. You cannot take that out of the equation. There are long term friendships in which other friendships are connected – a network of friendships in which trust forms as the basic foundation of these networks. […]

Kids in Dharavi, 2006

Airoots: Don’t most grassroots/ community groups rely on the charisma of individual leaders rather than on any type of a democratic process?

AA: Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of charisma. But to refer to the success of a movement through short-hand representations of leadership as being charismatic does not do adequate justice to what happens in many movements. It distracts from the fact that overtime the relationship between leaders and participants evolves into an interactive space. Overtime networks emerge and these are not built through the charisma of a single individual but an interactive charisma – a shared aura or what Weber called collective charisma (in the context of caste). Even Weber used the concept of charisma in different ways – not just in terms of leadership. […]

Airoots: What is a model of local information production and decision-making that we seem to be moving towards?

AA: Information is different from knowledge – knowledge is processed and placed in an ethical framework. Information is neutral. For knowledge to be of any consequence it needs a space for articulation and traction on public outcomes and debate. There is a tendency to imagine that information by default will change things – but this is not so. Information can exist and still be a harsh picture of exclusion. What we need to do is to put it in the context of knowledge and the space for its articulation. SPARC is constantly trying to bring people on the stage – as many people as possible – so that they can articulate their concerns. The PUKAR Youth Fellowship project, the Neighbourhood project all of them get people to tell their own story in different ways. Telling your story, narrating lives is a very important space within which you have to frame the question of information. The idea of the story, the right to tell your story is an old civilizational resource. Unfortunately when classified as folklore it becomes a top-down phenomenon. But it can and should be expressed in bottom- up ways and most groups and organizations which recognize this allow for such articulation. […]

Mapping the neighborhoods of Dharavi on a large google satellite image with residents at SPARC’s office.

Airoots: what is the potential of new communication technologies to radically transform the way cities get planned and developed?

AA: In a recent talk I made allusions to this. My proposal was that we have tended to think of disempowered and the disfranchised (in the context of cities or otherwise) mostly in terms of the information paradigm. I suggest that we use the imagination paradigm.

Thus for people who have access to the space of this technology, it is important to use this within the spheres you are alluding to – as much through the space of imagination and creativity as through information and knowledge. […]

It is important for all grassroots movements – whether to do with urban spaces or otherwise – to have a robust discussion on issues of information and creativity.
In fact it is vital to tell your story with proper exposure to the new technologies. […]

There is indeed a rich space for information and creativity in the world of urban planning and design by coalescing the worlds of information and imagination, but only when the people – the inhabitants themselves – become creators and a resource.

New York, October 12, 2007.
Full interview available here.

Artist Village in Mumbabylon

September 4, 2008

Charles Correa is one of the most influential Indian architects around. He has been building extensively in India and abroad, but along with his designs it is his thought process that made an impact. He was a strong advocate for the development of New Bombay (Navi Mumbai) as a twin city to Mumbai, that would decongest the city (or at least absorb some of the inflow of immigrants pouring in from rural areas to the financial capital of India). He actually acted as Chief Architect for the planning of the new city.  However, he himself would agree that, eventually, the city’s growth didn’t quite go as planned. An educated guess is: big money and unscrupulous/corrupted public officials messed up what was originally a good plan.

We know Charles Correa cannot be held responsible because in one part of the new city, he showed what he was really up to. This is the ‘Artist Village’, a 55 hectare mixed-income housing project in Belapur, New Bombay. The neighbourhood immediately transported us to a Goan atmosphere, indicating his roots on the Konkan. It was almost as if he saw the twin city as a gateway to the coast, all the way down to his native state.

The village has a high concentration of artists. The first residents had to be artists of some sort to move in. Naturally things have changed a lot since it was built, about 20 years ago.

It is really worth a visit. Go to see what a genius urban designer can do when he thinks beyond design. It is very fashionable amongst architects to despise each others’ works. Charles Correa’s ‘Artist Village’ in New Bombay has not been spared by criticism from fellow architects.

True, not much remains of the houses he designed. Most have been remodeled or destroyed and rebuilt. Some inhabitants said they were impractical (”What was the architect thinking when he put toilets outside the house?”). Some clusters of houses became “model” mini-gated-communities while others became mini-slums.

But this is precisely the genius of the project. It was produced with the idea that the residents were going to alter it in many ways, making it truly their own.

One resident we talked to complained that no provisions were made for the common spaces in the center of each cluster of houses. No one was in charge of maintaining them. These spaces do not fall under any jurisdiction; not private nor public.

This resident had to take it in his own hands and talked to his neighbors and they worked out a solution. They each contributed to a common fund that started being used for maintenance. There is even extra money left to pay a retired army man to spend his days sitting on a chair in front of the gate they built, to prevent strangers from entering the cluster (we got through though!)

In other clusters we saw residents wiping out the ground in front of their house. This was part of the plan. The architect even foresaw the dispute between neighbors which is part of the pluralistic and messy process of creating a community.

What really struck us as we walked through the Artist Village, was how organic it really looked. It was designed, yes – but it managed to be a natural city. Before we saw the project we had almost lost faith in urban design altogether, thinking that it was irremediably oppressive, determining in advance how people are to go about their lives, enclosing them into a limiting format.

The first reason why the Artist Village looks organic is that it allowed people to modify their houses freely, whether with a paintbrush or a mortar. Something that is NEVER allowed in the type of mass housing devastating the urban and psychological landscape of cities around the world.

The second reason, we have to say, is Correa’s deep understanding of the nature of cities. His cluster modules are very simple, yet they are related to each other in a complex way.

This housing project offers the quality of life of a village with the sophistication of a city. Each cluster permits the emergence of a hyperlocal community feeling, while integrating each house to the whole settlement at different levels. The hierarchy itself is very organic, as the diagrams below show (from Charles Correa 1989, The New Landscape).

Cluster of 7 houses

Cluster of 3 x 7 houses

Clusters of 3 x 3 x 7 houses

Mapping of the village

It is great to see that the best is possible. There is a middle-way between Dharavi and Brasilia and Charles Correa points clearly to it. Thank you Charles!  A deep bow from the airoots team.



Anthropologist Marilyn Strathern has several interesting insights on virtual and real worlds. The one we find particularly striking is her observation that both these realms are inter-subjectively connected. ‘Reality’ subsumes within it many abstractions that are ‘virtual’ to start with.

In the sphere of kinship, this interplay takes on interesting shapes. Kinship is composed of relationships between people that are imagined and structured in ways that play around the idea of nearness and distance in all kinds of ways. People who live in close proximity to each other also need to ‘imagine’ and ‘mediate’ their relationships through categorization and classification.

This can be full of painful psychological distance if the kinship ‘inter-face’ is based on categories that encourage hierarchy and distance – on the basis of gender, age or status.

Thus, people can live in the same house and be alienated from each other – with a zero-level of communication that no technological innovation can ever overcome.

She also points out that the idea of the ‘real’ itself is imbued with the weightiness of kinship categories in different ways. Thus the most ‘real’ relationships are imagined as being those of blood and family. The more distant ones – thus more ‘virtual’ – are of friendships.

However – anthropologists today have corrected many of their own pre conceptions about human modes of organization. They now acknowledge that kinship and friendship circles were equally relevant to our past histories – even for economic survival – and that to see one as more real than the other – in terms of classificatory modes – did not in anyway mean that we could not find the same level of intensity, emotional resonance and social dependence in both. In fact – since friendship spaces allowed for an expression of egalitarianism that traditional kinship did not – this world often had a lot of egalitarian resonance that provided relief to individuals caught in socially tight relations.

Today it has become easier for us to acknowledge the political values of friendship – as being as weighty and relevant to contemporary life in a double-edged way.

Societies in which traditional familial bonds are changing often represent the transformation in the idiom of friendship. It is easier for parents and children and husbands and wives to mark their modernity through the egalitarian resonances of ‘being friends’.

Virtual worlds thrive on the content of the communication that is crafted meaningfully through the imagery of friendship. It is crafted to deal with individual users through an inter-face of choice and freedom, as a world of possible friends and friendly voices. In other words, the world of communication technology is dominated by the culture of friendship.

What is equally significant is to see its impact on the way we perceive this technology. For one it renders the idea of distance as unimportant. This happens not only in the sense of transcending physical distance but by opening up a space for a connection on more egalitarian terms. That is what makes the internet such a potent political space. It is a space dominated by an alternative web of relations in which the virtual in both senses – para-real and beyond tightly knit social equations – gets to be expressed. This explains why smses being exchanged in a room or e-mails being exchanged through cabins in an office cannot be mechanically reduced to a retarded communication.

The virtual world has become a self-identified and – referential space of freedom and creativity through a more egalitarian mode of relating to people – that relies on the ‘virtual’ in a way that has always been part of any cultural history. It is as real as any other because it is fueled by human energies of communication that is motivated by the desire to connect with people in a free and flat way.

What Strathern reminds us that it is not the communication technology that is auto-producing these response. It is intensely complemented by a conscious desire to defend the ability of the technology to operate as such. This is so because it resonates so well with the political values that have become the dominant ones – especially for emerging generations.

What this suggests is that the political possibilities of friendship get tapped upon spontaneously through this fusion of social and technological forces. We don’t have to try too hard. In fact the commercial possibilities of the friendship industry are raking in the moolah for quick-thinking businesses which have understood this dimension of the internet.

But if we don’t see technology as an extension of conscious choice – in this case in the politically liberating language of egalitarian relationships – we often land up in unexpected places.

For example – literacy was often represented as the magic wand of transforming the world. The nation state was built around the energy of literacy which allowed – in the words of Benedict Anderson – to produce new emotive political imaginaries. According to Anderson – nations were new emotive abstractions that were facilitated by a new technology – literacy.

It would be useful to repeat the question that Strathern asked Anderson – what makes us think that small – scale societies and pre-national political identities didn’t need the faculty of the abstract imagination? If human relationships of the most basic kind are predicated on a culturally constructed vocabulary to actually encourage distance –(based on cultural status) then the need for uniting large political constructs through overcoming distance through communication cannot be a mere mechanical expansion of the idea.

It needs to be understood not through the technical expansion of the facility to communicate as much as its accompanying fore-ground score – the political values of the times, which may have, ironically been subverted through those very technologies. It is true that nations emerged along with the promise of various political freedoms. However, it is a different matter that they subsequently re-organized themselves on primordial identities of one kind or the other. Maybe because of the faulty slippage that took place in terms their understanding of technologies and political choices. They took the gift of literacy, modernized it through technological extensions and produced new versions of political-religious indoctrination that didn’t do much to extend the slogans that they brandied about. They controlled knowledge systems – directly or indirectly – and produced highly literate people with ancient political prejudices.

Today – as we imagine a less nationalized and territorialized world (as a political ideal – however contested) where technologies of all kinds have actually made it possible to cut through many firewalls – it is tempting once again to rely a lot on the imagined anti-bodies that exist within new communication technologies to help change the world.

What we have to be cautious about is what Strathern warns – we may imagine that we are getting globalized by a misplaced faith on the idea of distance and proximity as representing virtual and real dimensions.

We have often quoted Appadurai in this context – the fact of the matter is that locality is the inter-face through which the global gets experienced – wherever we are. The global is not the mechanical sum-total of many localities at all as a reductive understanding of communication, distance and proximity would have us think. Locality and the global are predicated on categories and modes of classification that can be anything – based on what we choose them to be.

Thus if we have to negotiate the politics of the contemporary world we have to do it through the interface of locality – even though we can see ‘global’ forces at work. Small neighbourhoods have become battlefields – without noisy warfare – just the rumble of speculation and the sound of construction.

The defenses that emerge against the war-mongers can come from unexpected directions – even virtual ones. For all of us who live half our lives in such worlds – and love it – we know that this space is not a result of cutting-edge technology alone – but the consequence of the choices that have cumulatively gone in making these technologies what they have become. The virtual world is a creative space which performs a function like a poem or story did in the past – in the primordial virtual worlds of our past lives – and the content of the poem is what we have to pay as much attention to.

The content is about ways of connecting with each other for its own sake, to use the energy unleashed through these connections in ways that we choose to.

If the dominant culture of virtual worlds is about friendship – and friendship was always gloriously virtual! – this can help transcend differences and hierarchies in all possible ways.

It can help carve a space where control and imposition is not the norm.

If the virtual world is about the reality of friendship then it opens up new ways of getting into the lives of each other.

Urbanology Workshops 2008

September 2, 2008


Dharavi Reloaded:
Workshop on the use of Dharavi.org with the residents of Koliwada, Dharavi Mumbai.

Around ten participants familiarised themselves with the tools required for uploading multi media material onto the URBZ www.dharavi.org website that emerged through the Urban Typhoon held earlier that month. More such workshops will be held from October onwards in different pockets all over Dharavi, through the Koliwada Design Cell.


Writing Imagination
On philosophies and practices of writing with post graduate media students from the Center for Media Studies unit, Tata Insititute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

The five day long workshop explored the relationship of knowledge, writing and context. It examined histories of knowledge practices and attempted to connect them to the way in which pedagogic practices are weighed down by interpretations and over interpretations that need reflection.


Narrating Fantasies
On story telling in different forms of media practices, with undergraduate students of St. Xavier’s College, Goa.

Participants examined the elements of narratives with concepts and tools that are not weighed down by a selfconscious literary imagination and which combine the image and the word as an organic part of expression.


Archiving Action
A workshop on Urban Knowledge Practices with the coordinators of the PUKAR Youth Fellowship Project, PUKAR, Mumbai.

This attempted to evolve strategies for the coordinators of the PUKAR Youth Fellowship Project to document their interventions with 400 young ‘barefoot researchers’ with whom they work all over Mumbai. This workshop is part of a series that will be held every month. The next one is scheduled for mid September.


From November onwards, a series of workshops will be held with the participants of the PUKAR Youth Fellowship project. These focus on the use of information and communication technology within the frame of urban research action practices of the project.