The notion of social innovation starts from the idea that any action of transformation, both big and small, should treat society, bottom-up, as the primary participant and not just as a passive recipient. To this end, new technologies taking advantage of the urban infrastructure are opening an incredible season of opportunity, empowering people to design and have a say in their futures.

Starting with New York protests against cellular base stations on rooftops, Michael Chen and Justin Snider of the architecture studio Normal Projects worked to make the hidden map of network antenna infrastructure visible—a system privately owned by telecommunication companies. Springing from a concern for people’s safety and health among electromagnetic pollution, the project investigates the political space of negotiation between public and private space, simultaneously involving everyone in gathering data about the antenna locations and signal strengths through their mobile devices.

New York Antenna map
photo: City Sensing: Signal Spaces, Normal Projects, New York, 2011

Everyone is able to contribute to the development of the map and at the same time unveil and perceive the hidden geography of the antennas throughout the city using a cell phone app. Employing the citizen’s augmented awareness of the environment, the project has the chance to become a tool for planning the urban environment with alternative zoning and a better distribution of the signal coverage within the urban grid.

The project starts from a collective action wherein everyone is responsible for developing a networked critical mass; the designer assumes the role of mediator between different actors and the role of facilitator enabling participation. The designer also creates and delivers the tools for collaborating. The consistency of this critical mass of participants directly influences the resulting map, but also the generated environmental awareness: citizens engage with the common good while generating data and simultaneously piecing together the ‘big picture’.
Communities of mappers are spreading around the globe to develop alternative aerial maps for civic and environmental purposes. In particular, balloon and kite mapping are becoming interesting grassroots alternatives to satellites and aeroplanes.

Developed as a toolkit, the residents of the Gulf Coast have been using this system to develop an alternative, community-owned map to document the BP oil spill. Balloons and kites are fairly accessible and inexpensive solutions that empower local citizens to generate environmental data and to chart the geography where they live and work. Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) is the community of activists, educators, and technologists who first started this project. They joined in recognizing the political power of gathering data and territorial knowledge to contest the official geographical narrative. With the help of local communities, PLOTS has so far succeeded in discovering nine environmentally compromised sites across the country. This has in turn challenged the private multinational companies who exploit the environment with unsustainable projects.

Green Tech Grassroots Mapping
photo: Grassroots Mapping, Public Laboratory, 2010

Along with a new notion of ‘the common good’, design may advocate new forms of participation. It can test tactics of interventions that are provisional, open-source and informal. In this way, technology is never neutral, but plays an important role in the processes of social innovation. In particular, the democratization of usability, communication and connectivity brought about by information technologies is widely reorganizing the processes of creation, production and distribution of goods and services.

As an example, the Air Quality Egg project is the result of the efforts of a large community of makers, designers and developers spanning New York, Amsterdam, London and the Internet at large. The project is a sort of grassroots work-in-progress that bypasses big multinational company money, and is instead searching for direct support through crowdfunding.

New York Amsterdam Air Quality Egg
photo: Air Quality Egg, Sensemakers, New York, Amsterdam, 2011

It could be called a design elaborated by the community for the community. It is a system of egg-shaped sensors that sit inside homes and are connected wirelessly to outdoor stations recording the NO2 and CO concentrations. It makes everyone aware of the urban air pollution in real time, and at the same time is contributing to the granular, high-resolution mapping of environmental conditions.

Thus, the boundary between design work and citizen involvement shifts to a form of complicity; and the job of the designer is now to develop and create platforms for interaction and communication. Participation is expressed in the tactical intelligence of small solutions, as opposed to a large, top-down, universal plan.

New York Amsterdam Environment Air Quality Egg
photo: Air Quality Egg, Sensemakers, New York, Amsterdam, 2011

In the wake of the so-called ‘end of grand narratives’ (Lyotard, 1979) and the twentieth century’s plethora of utopian global societies, design tactics are going public and local to give practical solutions and alternatives. These privilege the here and now, rather than an ideal tomorrow yet to come.

Header image: City Sensing: Signal Spaces, Normal Projects, New York, 2011