Three cups of coffee in on a September night in 2016, Buiksloterham’s citizens are exchanging some serious words about the hydroponic herb garden on the corner. They are part of a group of citizens role playing the Water Game – the Hackable City’s latest initiative to leverage the collective genius of citizens in finding solutions to treating water as a common pool resource. Its aim – to identify potential pitfalls in Amsterdam’s water system through complex scenario pitching and override them with stunning innovations. And because it’s a game, it’s safe; but it’s also the quickest way to fall down the proverbial rabbit hole and see what new dimensions of abstract problem solving open up.
And here’s the clincher. The other name for this game is called: ‘hacking’.
For some, the word alone conjures up images of dark basements occupied by brilliant misfits and pasty-skinned teenagers in hoodies taking over the world. Known as black hat hackers, they are usually a mean bunch whose genius is dangerously equal to their appetite for mass chaos.
But these nefarious few are still the relative minority. In actuality, hacking is becoming a respected and highly public activity, used for an equal amount of good to change the fabric of civil society. For those donning their white hats, hacking is a method of critical thinking that identifies the ills of digital and social ecosystems and then prescribes robust remedies to counteract them. It’s organised; it’s ethical; and, more than ever, it’s demanding an informed opinion.
Hacking is historical
At its core, hacking is more about a state of mind than an ability to outsmart the grid. It is a way of seeing the world and assuming you have a part to play in it.
Fundamentally it assumes that pointing out problems with our society is not good enough; we have a civic responsibility to do something about the problems we see. It is a deeply democratic process as old as nations themselves. Societies founded on free enterprise, liberal ideology and empowered citizenry are, at heart, hackable societies, because they are built organically and collectively.
Harriet Tubman circumvented an evil institution on earth by going underneath it. As Catherine Bracy of Code for America points out, Benjamin Franklin was one of the world’s greatest hackers because he proliferated the world with inventions he refused to patent. He believed all human knowledge should be freely available and all governments should be built by the people.
Civic hackers of today follow in their footsteps – upholding the same virtues of collaboration and democracy that crafted our constitutions to co-create our urban ecosystems.
Hacking activates citizenry
At its core, hacking is more about a state of mind than an ability to outsmart the grid. In 2013, Mexico City rewrote the rule book of traditional policymaking and, in turn, re-energised a spirit of city building. Much to the outrage of an urban population living 40 per cent below the poverty line, Mexico’s House of Representatives signed a $9.3 million, two-year contract to develop a simple app that tracks their in-house sessions.
Seen as another case of government fund misuse, the event kickstarted a mad hacking spree through the launch of Codeando México’s #app115 challenge. The challenge invited hackers to take action: “Create an awesome, simple and useful open source Congress app for the Mexican citizens, make some money out of it and show how technology can bridge the gap between citizens and their representatives. In ten days, over 170 apps were created at a fraction of the original cost, and the contract was successfully terminated. The winners receive an iPad mini and a symbolic prize amount of $9,300–10,000 times cheaper than the commissioned app.
Codeando México understood the power of technology to leverage action and bridge divides. They used innovation to “go beyond angry tweeting, towards fixing the world on a Saturday night over some tequilas”. And in return, they showed people a constructive alternative to nail your colours to the mast and mobilise positive change.
Need more convincing?
Without a doubt, technology is becoming smarter and more streamlined. The assumption (or at least the hope) is that these smart systems will improve our quality of life, by seamlessly undergirding human activity with intuitive and flawless technology. Phenomenal innovations are everywhere to back this idea. And yet, the question begs asking, will these technologies keep on serving us, or will they eventually overtake us?
Media scholar Dr. Michiel de Lange would argue that the best way to protect our future is by staying one step ahead of it.
Games give people a way to ‘own’ their cities, as they have to think critically about the way systems work together. But at the same time, playful hacking is safe and empowering, because it is kept to the confines of experimentation. Hackable cities acknowledge the ubiquity of smart technology.
But they don’t hand over the reigns entirely. Hackable cities are deeply human at their core, with people constantly tapping in and changing the trajectory of our digitally entrenched communities. As de Lange would purport: Truly, smart cities are ones that can be playfully directed and reimagined by bright-minded citizens.
Hacking them promotes rapid prototyping and experimentation; community involvement; supports the maintenance of open source code – as opposed to the constant battle against proprietary software (ownership is shared with a community – democracy at its finest); and reuseability in that open source software helps populate a larger commons that cities, states, businesses and individuals can participate in.
Hackability is more than just ‘technological vulnerability’ and finding faultlines. It’s also about building intangibles, like critical thinking, advocacy and curiosity, that foster a bottom-up approach to government, economy and society as a whole. For every Julian Assange in the headlines, there are countless more hackers behind the scenes who are quietly co-creating healthy and innovative societies. Activists, politicians, parents and neighbourhood grocers. People who simply see gaps and want to fill them.
Perhaps the question for everyone today is not ‘why hack?’ but rather what’s your hack? In a time of extreme instability and change, perhaps the smartest place to be is one that welcomes interruption and self-review.