23 April 2016, Amsterdam @Buiksloterham & NDSM wharf Walking on Sunshine: a workshop about collectively designing public infrastructure

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Workshop Walking on Sunshine

On a stormy Saturday morning, residents from Buiksloterham’s self build community gathered at the NDSM werf (Amsterdam Noord) to participate in the workshop ‘Walking on Sunshine’. The workshop aimed to research and illustrate emerging dynamics between individuals – as they attempt to collaboratively design public infrastructure  – within the context of the circular economy. To make this rather abstract theme more concrete, residents were invited to the workshop to build and design a hi-tech sidewalk together; the sidewalk tiles being produced from their own green garbage.

The sidewalk was imagined as a ‘commons’, to which residents could contribute resources (green garbage). During the workshop, participants were encouraged to discuss and weigh both their individual, and common goals. Could they imagine public infrastructure being designed and managed collaboratively? Could, and should, individual contributions to the commons be measured – and rewarded? And lastly, and how do these individual contributions weigh in against the collective, or even public interest?

The workshop was also inspired by new technologies. Firstly, new techniques that make it possible to transform waste into a sustainable building material. The impending introduction of chipped bins to the array of ‘smart city’ products – that digitally weigh and transmit the volume/value of each resident’s garbage – also factored into the workshop.

The group was comprised of five self builders, and two builders from the ‘Samenwerkers’, a communal self-build group. Even though all of the participants live on the same street, their motivation for self-building, and their approaches toward doing so, varied.

For instance, one resident focused on quickly constructing his house from mostly pre-fab elements, in order to save money and re-invest in new properties. An architect was building his house himself from scratch, to get hands-on experience with new sustainable innovations. His house could also serve as a calling card for new clients. Another builder was committed to designing a highly sustainable, and self supporting house – focusing on wood as an elemental material. A number of residents were also developing dwellings on the back-side of their plots, to be rented out, in order to generate extra income.

Following a short presentation about exactly how green garbage can be transformed into carbon neutral concrete, these residents began the task of designing their own pollution reducing sidewalk – together.

Through a system called pyrolysis, green garbage (gft) is superheated and transformed into ‘biochar’. (Biochar was first produced by the Pre-Columbian Amazonian’s, who used it to enrich their soil. The term ‘biochar’ was later coined by Peter Read.) Biochar produced from green garbage can be stabilized in concrete, resulting in a pollution reducing building material. One kilo of biochar equals three kilos of trapped atmospheric CO2. Could residents in a neighborhood now pool their garbage and thus collaboratively produce building material that could be used to improve the neighborhood?


The strategy of the workshop was ‘research through making’. The sidewalk functions as a tangible catalyst by giving complicated questions material form. Each participant was asked to respond to specific questions by physically positioning his or her individual contribution(s). This made it possible to immediately see how individual choices affected the group. As residents answered a series of questions about donation, collection, rewards and profit sharing, and personalization – the design of the sidewalk morphed and evolved – reflecting their ‘real-time’ decision making.

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Built into the workshop are a number of ‘rewards’ – both material and immaterial. Visualizing these rewards allowed participants to immediately reflect upon the implications of their choices. Throughout the workshop, sidewalk remained a concrete reference point, giving form to discussions about collective organization and the future development of public spaces.

The workshop zoomed-in on four central questions:

  1. Are residents willing to pool their individual resources (e.g. green garbage) toward a ‘common good’. The common good, in this case, being recycling raw materials in order to achieve their goal to live in a circular neighborhood. In addition, are residents willing to contribute these raw materials to create infrastructure normally provided by the municipality. In other words, how far beyond the threshold of the front door do these sustainable principles extend?
  2. The second question focuses on how residents perceive the value of their raw materials, and what kind of reward they expect for contributing them. For instance, are they willing to donate their resources for free, when the municipality, or private collection companies are themselves earning from the waste they produce?
  3. Perhaps the most important issue explored during the workshop is individual rewards vs. collective reward, organization and investment. What kind of new social and economic cooperations emerge when residents decide to join together to collectively implement their resources?
  4. Finally, the sidewalk was used to test out ‘personalization’ as a kind of reward. Do residents feel that as suppliers of infrastructure they may determine the ‘look’ of the sidewalk. How does the collective choose and govern content?

The common good

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At the start of the workshop each resident was assigned a specific number of sidewalk ‘tiles’, representing the make-up of their household. One concrete tile (80cm x 100cm) equals the average yearly output of green garbage per individual – 100 kilo. Thus, a person with a two person household received two tiles, a person with a four person household received four tiles, and so on. Additionally, residents who volunteer to maintain the local park each received a green ‘park tile’ (made from the green clippings from the park.) Each resident was asked how much of their own green garbage he or she would donate toward the creation of the sidewalk.

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All but one of the participants was willing to donate some, or all their waste. Almost half of them decided to keep a portion of their green waste, for their own gardens. Two participants were willing to donate their tiles only if the sidewalk was a collective project, otherwise they were not interested in participating at all.

Following this ‘only if’ declaration, the group made the decision that the sidewalk should be designed collectively – in the sense that decision making would be non-hierarchical. No one was in favor of residents who produced more tiles having more say in the outcome of the sidewalk, or the distribution of eventual rewards. Residents unanimously shunned hierarchical decision making based on donation levels.

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The workshop continued with the six remaining participants, and their remaining tiles. The tiles were lined up on the ground to form a sidewalk. Participants calculated both their individual totals, and the overall total of the ’18kg’ tiles (18kg representing the amount of stored carbon in each tile). Although each participant was in favor of mutually recognizing each other’s individual contributions, they deemed recognising these contributions publicly, unnecessary. Recognizing individual contributions ‘behind closed doors’ did seem to indicate the potential to stimulate participation, and group cohesion.

Residents were asked if they would like to receive an additional collective reward for donating their raw materials, or if contributing to the common good in order to uphold circular principals was reward enough. Everyone quickly agreed that this circular from of recycling was reward enough.

Assigning value to raw materials: is the ‘common good’ good enough?

The group was asked to consider donating their resources for free, versus the policy of the municipality, or private collection companies, who earn from the waste they produce. Not only were they missing out on profit, but the municipality was also charging them for collection. Some of the participants felt charging for collection was reasonable, because they did not want to dispose of their green garbage themselves. But when asked what they would do if the municipality ‘offered’ them a credit for donating their raw materials, everyone agreed they would accept it. This turn of events meant that monetary reward, or a ‘credit’, had trumped non-monetary reward, e.g. the greater good. The next question was if residents would keep their individual profits, or once again pool their resources (now in the form of money).

Individual vs. collective reward and profit sharing

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The reverse of each tile shows the amount ’25,00 euro’, representing a reward, provided in this case, by the municipality. A household of four would thus receive a 100,00 euro credit per year for donating their waste toward the production of public infrastructure.

Participants were asked if they would keep the money for themselves, or pool their profits. The group had amassed a 425,00 euro investment, plus 306kilos of carbon storage, which they could decide to trade with on the carbon market. The collective responded unanimously that all profits should remain collective – and decisions about how it could be spent should also be made collectively.

Ideas about how to spend the money ranged from investing in programs to achieve zero waste targets, to sharing information about the creation of these types of sidewalks, in order to help put sustainability on the agenda in less affluent neighborhoods. In conclusion, nobody took the money and ran. The entire group aimed to reinvest their profit on a yearly basis, and preferably locally.

When asked if residents would be equally motivated to reinvest the collective profit if it was to be spent on a neighborhood other than their own, it didn’t matter to the majority of the group if the sidewalk ended up at a different location. Some even preferred this option, as there is already so much emphasis on sustainable projects, in Buiksloterham.

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Ideas about individual behavior vs. collective organization also emerged when participants were asked what type of collection plan they would prefer:

  • dumping green garbage at one central point in the neighborhood, like an underground container – that totals the weight of the neighborhood’s deposit indiscriminately
  • dumping green garbage at one central point in the neighborhood, like an underground container – that tracks the weight of each individual’s deposits, and totals the neighborhood’s deposit
  • a per house bin that is collected and dumped at a central collection point, where the neighborhood’s total deposit is calculated
  • a per house chipped bin that tracks individual deposits, before it’s collected and dumped at a central collection point, where the neighborhood’s total deposit is calculated

The aim of these questions was to further explore how residents wished to remain visible within the collective. Perhaps a central collection point could also stimulate donation, and cohesion around food waste collection? Interestingly, the group was split about a central collection point vs. individual bins – but everyone agreed that individual deposits should be tracked. Residents were in favor of tracking their donations, and also their individual profit – as long as this profit remained within, and the property of the group. The wish to be recognized individually runs parallel to their demand for collective organization and governance.

Personalisation (as reward)

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The last phase of the workshop shifted from questions about monetary vs. non-monetary rewards, and sharing reward, to questions pertaining to identification. Could personalising your own tile(s) also be considered a kind of reward? Participants were given three design options:

  • a ubiquitous tile, thus matching the rest of the group (in this case, a grey tile)
  • a tile designed by someone else, but represents a cause or design they identify with: One tile was the ‘lady bug tile’, the national symbol for protesting against domestic violence. The other was the traditional ‘knikkerput tile’, for playing street marbles. Neither one of them has anything to do with garbage.
  • a personalised tile: The example was the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ tile. Everyone was handed a marker to write their name, or a personal message of their choice.

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This set of options rocked the group dynamic. Their reactions were clearly inconsistent with each other, and impassioned:

‘Nice if each tile tells a different story!’

‘Just please, a simple grey tile, not that everybody is doing his own thing’.

‘I’m not into an extravagant mosaic.’

‘Let’s choose one look together, perhaps from a pre-designed set of options.’

Things got especially out of hand when one resident drew an ‘anti-sustainability logo’ on his tile. He explained that even though he was in favor of collective approaches, building houses was his main focus; and that the neighborhoods highly sustainable principles had begun to irritate him. His personal views clashed with the rest of the group, which led to a heated discussion about how to make decisions about ownership vs. content.

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The group agreed there should be some form of oversight to handle this issue, but what this should be remained unclear. Some were in favour of a democratic system – a majority vote resulting in the inclusion of visual content. One participant was in favour of a sociocracy. Others sought to avoid the discussion all together by outsourcing ‘design’ to a professional. There also arose a discussion about choosing from a number of pre-fab design options; a strategy already employed by the municipality. Perhaps the municipality should, together with design professionals, develop a catalog of sustainable tiles.

One thing they all agreed upon, was that they had to agree; but a specific form of governance for the visual design of the sidewalk is still to be determined. In contrast to harmonious discussions about non-hierarchical decision making and profit sharing – governing the ‘look’ of the sidewalk was clearly a challenge.

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Concluding thoughts

Prototyping the sidewalk facilitated a number of discussions about what happens when individuals contribute to a ‘commons’, and change the way city infrastructure is produced and managed.

This specific group had different preferences when it came to pooling their resources. Not everyone was willing or able to contribute the same amount. This proved somewhat of a non-issue, as the group quickly agreed that hierarchical decision making based on donation levels was inappropriate.

Once the group decided to accept a financial reward for their contributions they also speedily agreed to share the profit, and reinvest it in the neighborhood. Decisions about how to reinvest their reward were also clearly  to be made collectively.

Interestingly enough, despite this united approach, participants also agreed that individual contributions should be continually tracked – and that this data should be available to the commons. This idea seemed to both stimulate individual donation, and also provide a sense of recognition within the larger context.

Most surprising was the shift that occurred when ‘personalization’ was introduced. This form of visual ownership triggered an intense discussion about governance, and different forms of governance. Managing the aesthetics of the sidewalk was a true challenge for the group. The proposal to develop a pre-fab catalog provided a temporary compromise, but was not a convincing solution.

Smart city and emerging technologies make it possible to realize some of the group’s ambitions – for instance tracking individual contributions at the ‘back end’. More complicated issues, for instance, determining new forms of governance to organize investment and content management, are more challenging aspects of collective design.

Next steps: a concrete proposal

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In the coming months the Hackable City plans to develop the sidewalk in Buiksloterham. This will allow us to study collectively designing public infrastructure under ‘real life’ conditions.

What happens when residents become suppliers, producers and designers – over the course of one year? How will this long-term co-production influence the neighbourhood dynamic, and test their common ambition to live in a circular community? Which technologies can play a role in stimulating long-term commitment to designing public space together?

These are some of the questions the project will attempt to answer in the coming year. The physical evolution of the sidewalk will reflect the progress, and results of our findings.