IAM 2021: The future of community is intercitizenship

type - big idea
Big Idea
category - design
category - future city
category - society
Solutions were not enough at this year’s IAM Weekend, as thinkers gathered to imagine better internet(s), care systems and inter-species perspectives

An eco-internet is possible – if we work together

Designing for good is in the DNA of IAM Weekend, the annual symposium that saw creative thinkers unite in Barcelona and online to make the digital economy a more socially responsible ecosystem. Combine this with the 2021 slogan of ‘move slow and repair things’ and it’s no wonder that many speakers set out to combat the carbon-thirsty nature of the internet.

This year, designers went beyond acknowledgement of the carbon emissions caused by data and instead focused squarely on finding solutions. Tom Jarrett, a designer for Branch Magazine and Normally, presented a manifesto that avoids data-shaming in favour of showcasing ways to lighten the web.

With data centre water use in the US estimated to exceed 1.7bn litres a day, Jarrett argues that we must swap data-heavy tools like Google Analytics for Cabin, a service that does not use cookies, making it anonymous by default and sharing no data with advertisers. It also uses fewer resources – Cabin’s client script is 97% smaller than Google Analytics.

Another way of reducing the ecological impact of the web is to use solar power. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen platforms create solar-powered websites – Low-tech Magazine goes offline when the sun isn’t shining in Barcelona. But it is the first time we’ve seen a community be built around solar solutions; Solar Protocol is creating a ‘naturally intelligent network’ of people across the globe who have access to solar panels and are passionate about powering a low-impact internet.

Care becomes a collective endeavour

After such a period of collective grief, the importance of healing was central to many conversations at IAM Weekend. In the vein of Synchronised Care, an attitudinal shift emerged from individual modes of care to those that are shared among communities.

Social artist and organiser Amahra Spence brought a reality check to the Barcelona stage with an interactive exercise in pay transparency, before closing the event with a presentation on how society can embrace a phenomenon she calls ‘systemic transformation’. Spence’s practice, which explores how infrastructure, spaces and programming can help to meet people’s material and spiritual needs, has manifested in the creation of two community spaces in her hometown of Birmingham. Yard is an arthouse designed to nurture the imaginations of locals, with a focus on people of the global majority, while her new venture, Abuelos, will take the form of a hotel that replicates the experience of the family home. Spence believes this could transform hospitality into an act of care: ‘What would it mean if we structured our society around mutual aid?’ she asked the audience.

Taking a more candid view of care was David McGovern, an artist and educator who is proposing a new language and aesthetics for the way we look after ourselves – and one another. Hard Care was described as ‘a social imaginary that sits at the intersection of queer, crip and sex work experiences.’ Rejecting care as soft and passive, and instead exploring unofficial sources of care, whether that comes from a dating app or intimacy with the planet, McGovern identified the failings of the wellness industry in his movement to reimagine illness. ‘The wellness narrative doesn’t like that you can get sick against your will,’ he explains.

Published by:

25 November 2021

Author: Holly Friend and Livvy Houghton

Image: IAM Weekend 2021, Barcelona


Left: Toyota Woven City. Right: Hard Care by David McGovern.

Tech is central to neo-kinship

With most of the event held in the virtual realm, a sense of conviviality was present at the physical gathering – aided by a series of interactive workshops, offsite meetups and a shared Telegram group.

The fact that technology facilitated this sense of belonging aligned with topics presented by speakers. One example is the Atlantic Institute. While it may not seem like extended reality (XR) technology would go hand-in-hand with a civic community that addresses systemic causes of inequality, the institute's Augmented and Virtual Realities Lead, Alice Wroe, is researching innovative ways to bring its fellows together digitally. A former creative director of Magic Leap, Wroe was joined by Tanya Charles, Program and Impact Lead, who presented an augmented reality artefact that acts as a shared, cross-cultural ritual for its fellows across continents.

There was also discussion around how we can live in cities that are in-built with intuitive technologies. Digital product and interaction designer Liya Safina is one of the minds working on Toyota’s Woven City, a city-scale laboratory that expects to house around 1,000 people by 2026. Building on our Research Cities microtrend, the development will not only incorporate green energy systems and autonomous transport, but will use technology to allow residents to give continuous feedback, allowing the urban environment to evolve over time. ‘It’s a city designed to be replicated – if it works,’ Safina explained, highlighting Google’s Sidewalk Labs project as an example of a project that fell flat due to concerns about residents’ data.

It’s time to harmonise with non-human species

With Imagining Intercitizenships the theme of this year’s IAM Weekend, attendees were encouraged to envision experimental ways of reconnecting with Planet Earth. While many focused on human belonging, others floated the idea of building intercitizenships with non-human species.

This was the concept behind critical designer Ted Hunt’s talk: ‘What is it like to be a circadian organism?’ His case for embodying a harmony with all living things – using a bat as an example – was rooted in the fact we have become ‘critically disconnected from interconnection.’ Looking at what connects us to animal species instead of divides us, Hunt emphasised the importance of light, time and circadian rhythms, which are essential to all organisms but have been largely forgotten in society’s commodification of time. His research culminates in a smartwatch app called Circa Solar, which aims to slow down our perception of time and reconnect humans with natural rhythmic fluctuations. According to Hunt, our devices can still allow us to harmonise with nature, as long as we ‘employ technology to design nature back into ourselves.’

Unexpectedly, live-action role play (LARP) games can also offer a playful route to understanding non-human perspectives. The Treaty of Finsbury Park took the form of a video call between a plane tree, Canada goose, dog and beetle, among other anthropomorphic creatures who make up the biodiversity of London’s Finsbury Park. The project looks forward to 2025, when the park’s species have risen up to demand equal rights with humans, drawing up a treaty that requires human to better relate to the diverse species through a new invention called the Sentience Dial, which allows people to tune into the consciousness of the park.

‘Do the benefits of a digital product or service balance or outweigh the cost?’
Tom Jarrett, designer

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