Designing a better future: peer to peer toolkit primer

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at the College Art Association’s national conference in Chicago on “Designing a Better Future.” This is my presentation that introduces peer-to-peer learning to more traditional college educators. Check out the outline, below, and the presentation visuals can be viewed here.

Wizard by Samuel Gaskin

My life and work to date are like prisms composed of many angles and facets. I’m an artist, technologist, organizer, amatuer anthropologist, hacktivist, researcher, analyst… optimist, dreamer… perpetual learner. In other words, I’m a wizard.

Nina Bianchi's prisms

When you look “wizard” up on Wikipedia, the definition speaks of men with long beards and pointy hats who use spells and magic to shape a “fantasy world.” I don’t have a beard. I don’t live in middle earth (although Detroit and Middle Earth do have certain similarities) and I don’t walk around with a gnarled staff. But, I do spend all of my time working to make a fantasy world a reality. I’m a designer.

My fantasy world is a collaborative, self-sustaining place where everyone has access to the tools, resources and knowledge to design and operate our collective infrastructure, together. How can we create this more just and creative future? Peer-to-peer toolkits.

Traditional hub network

Traditionally, most of our developed world operates like this “hub and spoke” network. There is one central “authority” which passes content (like food, media, money, information, you name it) down to receiving nodes or consumers. These main hubs control the who, what, when, where and how of life. If we rely on it for sustenance and it goes out—we’re cut off.

Broken hub network

A peer-to-peer network decentralizes this authority so that “things," whatever they may be, are passed directly from peers. Like friends within a mutually-beneficially network. If one “node” goes down, the impact is minimized and the system can carry on. It’s more sustainable and increases accountability. It redefines a consumer’s relationship and how information and knowledge is passed and shared. If you want to get really deep, read up on the history of peer-to-peer protocol.

Peer-to-peer network

So, what are peer-to-peer toolkits? Historically, there have been movements that centered around facilitating creativity and self-sustainability (peer-to-peer before the term existed) like the Whole Earth Catalog from the late sixties and early seventies. This series of books was like a dynamic hub of DIY-like tools directed by Stewart Brand.

If you’re an active Internet user, it’s likely that you’re familiar with many peer-to-peer platforms already that are centered around finance and commerce. These range from eBay through to Airbnb, Kickstarter, RelayRides, etc. The list continues on to platforms for peer-to-peer lending like Zopa (UK) which facilitated over 90 million pounds in exchange last year. These platforms facilitate peer-to-peer exchange however are fundamentally controlled by an singular, main hub or company.

Open-source software is also often focused around peer-to-peer sharing and is built by tight communities that contribute to the platform’s evolution. For example, Mozilla, Drupal, Apache, WordPress, and even creative examples like openFrameworks. Some examples of less conventional open-source platforms include The Noun Project, an open lexicon and visual library and Paperhouses, a growing resource for architecture and culture.

I look to create accessible toolkits and platforms focused on collaborative design that center around shaping our collective fantasy worlds. Art and design can help project a vision for the future but we need to understand the reality before we can begin to do something. This is where education comes in.

The Center for Urban Pedagogy works with artists and designers to develop workshops and print-based tools that activate citizenry and civic engagement. As a nonprofit, it focuses on demystifying complex policy issues that impact our infrastructure. CUP’s Making Policy Public program emphasizes the designer’s role in translating in a public sphere.

Center for Urban Pedagogy

Projects like DIY, Instructables, Mozilla Webmaker, and P2PU are inspirational examples of education-based, peer-to-peer maker platforms. These communities, amongst many others that I’m not listing here, engage audiences and encourage a productive, proactive culture of makers and consumers.

DiscoTech how to tool

My dream is to continue building toolkits that are extensible, dynamic and fluid. It inspires me to see my collaborative work on the Commotion Construction Kit, an open-source education platform around community (mesh) networks, being adopted locally across the US and internationally in places like India and Tunisia. Our DiscoTech (Discovering Technology fair) is now being taught at the Center for Civic Media at MIT and implemented among all kinds of communities from LA to Palestine, and beyond!

So, what does this mean for the future of educational institutions? Especially art institutions? What role can these organizations play to facilitate this future? We need to educate each other. We need to foster networks. We need to work together more often and more openly to grow shared visions. I want everyone to activate their inner wizard ... it’s not really magic, it’s just sharing. Okay, it’s a little bit magic, but mostly it’s just sharing.