Hyping Up Neighbourhoods

December 8, 2010

Presentation at the JSTOR conference on Sustainable Digital Initiatives in India, Bangalore, December 9, 2010. The presentation is titled: “Hyping Up Neighbourhoods: Hyper-topographies of user-generated cities.”

1. The Culture of Friendship.

According to anthropologist Marilyn Strathern one of the biggest achievements of the web has been to break through kinship based hierarchical barriers to communication. Along with distance, proximity itself poses enough barriers to communication when class, age, gender and other markers come in the way. The web has promoted a mode and style of communication that works through the tone and conventions of informality which has far-reaching effects on social life than we imagine. Not just through collapsing huge distances but also breaking through  non-physical barriers in our backyards.

The web promotes a culture of friendship that we have still to fully understand beyond the quick moves made by social network sites. Social network sites themselves are based on a language that emerged in the early days of the web, when community users were exchanging information through bulletin boards and web-based communities. The culture of informality, sharing and collaborative sourcing is encoded in the DNA of the internet .

The fast absorption rate of new technology protocols by the youth that we observe in India is also thanks to dense off line social networks. The existence of those social networks is one of the strongest assets of India today and operates as much online as it already in offline spaces in familiar ways. Our work in Dharavi in Mumbai builds intensely on these social networks, which are cemented as much by friendship networks as by kinship and community bonds.  Dharavi is a so-called slum that we prefer to call a neighbourhood in formation, and it exemplifies the idea and practice of the user generated city. It was generated out of nothing by settlors, who transformed it from  marshlands and mangroves into what it is today without fully erasing both these elements that continue to exist.


2. Airoots

The name of our blog is inspired by mangroves, which grow through a biological interdependence of each other as well as of land, sea, air, fresh and salt water sources. They occupy a space that is in between worlds, acting as a perfect metaphor for virtual and actual realities that help us connect with the web in the same way. As an environment that is full of elements found in each other. The actual has elements of the virtual and vice versa. When we met and started our collaborations and exchanges we were building on these elements all the time. Inspired by the dense networks of Dharavi in Mumbai and Shimokitazawa in Tokyo, our virtual exchanges made us see connections between the two and then we physically rooted ourselves in each others environments – Tokyo and Mumbai to develop our understanding of urban spaces in different avatars – virtual, actual and others. Through our web based collaborations we began growing roots into each others mind spaces, and this is really the power of the net – not only to expand but to promote interdependence and cross connections.

By focusing more on what is common than what is different, we could rethink in deeper ways about both cities, we realised that Dharavi was a version of Tokyo’s past and Tokyo is a version of Dharavi’s future. They both have a history of incremental development  and they both share a low-rise high density typology which we feel embodies these interdependent community and friendship based networks which make up their social and physical environments. The mashup collages we produced were themselves the best communication devices to present these interconnections.



3. Urban Typhoon

The Urban Typhoon workshops built on the ideas of local action, participation and social networks. In 2008, we organized the Urban Typhoon Koliwada-Dharavi, in which about 130 people from Koliwada and the rest of the world joined voluntarily. Together we brainstormed on the future of Koliwada, a fishing village tucked in Mumbai and wrongly referred to as a slum.

In the process, we broke many barriers, including communication barriers since we could work together in teams with people speaking different languages and coming from completely different cultural and social backgrounds. We also broke some barriers in the way “activism” is usually conceived of in India, where mass mobilizations through rallies and slogans dominates the scene along with a tendency of speaking on behalf of the ‘oppressed’ people. Our mode of connection was through the same spontaneous frienship networks that allow people today to connect through vast distances via Facebook.

The virtual existence of the workshop as a project, months before its actualization in Dharavi is the way it came to life. The interdependence of the virtual and actual is what made the workshop possible. It is this connection that helps us locate our action and documentation processes best. At one level, digitizing, documenting or archiving the past is coming to terms with the virtual element of all that is seen to be worthy of archiving. But if we see elements of the two in each other, which is the way we define our activism as well, then the act of documenting what we are doing is almost coterminous with our action. Technologies available to all of us today make this possible in an unprecedented way. For us this defines the nature of our activism itself.

In the world of urban planning, participation is a buzz word. Anything, from rallies to surveys are seen to be part of the participatory process. For us participation is interaction and expression, spaces that allow more connections and interdependencies. Allowing Dharavi to grow and improve on its own, based on these processes is what epitomizes participation best. We facilitate the process through our own engagements – and most especially, through our skills of documentation of this process.



4. Dharavi.organic

Archiving research, projects, activist moments and processes is integral to what we do. We used the wiki site for this purpose. The wiki grew way beyond the workshop and we began using it as an archive for every one working in Dharavi. It also allowed many people to connect with each other directly. Film makers, journalists, media people and community members connected with each other through the wiki and initiatives were created or grew from these connections.

Today, dharavi.org is a well-used, growing, archive cum networking space and always comes up on google searches. This has influenced the way journalists, stidents and researchers look at Dharavi now. It is not easy to dismiss Dharavi as a slum anymore.




5. URBZ: User-generated Cities

Continuing with our belief that the virtual and actual are constantly interdependent, we set up our office space in Dharavi from where we work with the neighbourhood. Working and learning from the context directly has informed our understanding of user generated cities the best. We can see for ourselves how the neighbourhood is constantly being produced and can participate in the process as well. The context of Dharavi is our subject, a living subject. It is a living repository of incremental development which is our main thematic informing our activism. And digitizing this process as it unfolds is one of our main mandates. Its complex layers, its palimpsest quality, its moving maps and constant movement is a challenge for digitizing in a manner familiar to all people involved in the practice of archiving and digitizing. And we know for sure we can learn a lot from each other in this regard.

After opening our office on MG Road, New Transit Camp, we have become involved with the Dharavi Shelter, a community initiative that aims at providing a creative space for the kids living in the neighbourhood. We are managing the space and producing the programme of activities, which include many activities that are producing valuable documentation about Dharavi. The art is also spilling over onto the street, where we are inviting artists to paint walls along with the local youth. Our latest initiative is a stand-up cybercafe, which will be based in the ground floor of the building where our office is located.



6. Documentation as Intervention

This interconnection of documentation and engagement is something that we developed in PUKAR when we worked there. The Youth Fellowship project and other action-research project that PUKAR is engaged with allowed us to use information and communication technology directly for this purpose.

Along with advising on research, we trained some of the 400 PUKAR Youth Fellows to use the web to present their research and connect with a larger community of researchers in Mumbai and around the world. We also developed the new PUKAR website, which allows them to keep their blogs and archive their work in multiple languages. The PUKAR site was entirely customized to the needs of PUKAR.

Using the same basic framework, we have developed other websites archiving our work in different parts of Mumbai, including the Eastern Waterfront, where we conducted an urban design studio with graduate students from Columbia University and in Khotachwadi, where we have been involved with the conservation of the architectural heritage.






7. Urbanology

We have recently incorporated the Institute of Urbanology in Goa, which aims at developing methodologies for urban research along with conceptual tools that will allow us to think about cities and urban interventions in a more grounded way. This accompanies  our engagements in consultancy, design and architectural practices and  we like to think of all these spaces as informing each other. The Institute is more focused on research, but defined and practiced in creative ways. One important element of this includes refining the processes of digitization and documentation based on the principles we have described above.

To summarize, we see online tools and techniques of digitization as intrinsic to the process of engagement. We understand our context as being a composite and interdependent whole of virtual and actual realities. We therefore relate to the context as a living subject with which we interact in multiple ways. The culture of the web is a major source of inspiration for our work, in particular its roots in friendly and open protocols, social  networks, peer learning. The web also augments our activism at the ground level.