CAPs: Digital commons by public design

The basic function of Collective Awareness Platforms (CAPS) present a design problem, says Maurizio Teli of the University of Trento. How to design platforms for the collective production of sustainable solutions to societal issues?

CAPS are ICT systems leveraging new network effects by combining open online social media, distributed knowledge creation and data from real environments, and the focus of a two day conference in Brussels (7-8 July) under the theme ‘Networked Social Responsibility’.

In short, the objective is to create awareness of problems and possible solutions requesting collective efforts, enabling new forms of social innovation. The challenge to this evolving production process, says Teli, is ‘public design of the digital commons’ – a cooperative, collective governance of collective wealth and material resources through digital technologies that reflect social practices.

At a basic level a simple Facebook group linking residents of a single street combines open online social media, distributed knowledge creation, and data from real environments in the CAPS sense, but scaling that quality of cooperation to a city-wide level or more requires more than simple participation in the process, but participation in the process design as well.

This is “a step into the unknown” for technology designers, says Teli. The process should recognise, understand and articulate the different concerns of society. Designers need to step beyond the conventional design focus on usability and user experience and into a frame of thinking that represents the public dimension – from beyond thinking of users as subjects, to people as partners.

New technology design has to combine social and action research to refine the social issues to be addressed, Teli says. But there are several competing interpretations of the technology-society nexus. New methodological tools will have to be devised to ensure that the designers’ interpretations align with those of the people.

It may help to conceive of all technology, new, old and in development, as a single digital commons, as ready to leverage existing tools as disrupt with new ones. Sustainable models require social issues to be addressed by recognition of the divergence between the expectations and outcomes of both sides and an understanding of how technologies embed in societies at large.

Research and development should prepare different methods for design in different social domains. Designers should recognise the issues, technologies & institutions that they serve are continuously recursive – that they continuously change definition, but are redefined in terms of their preceding identities. This especially applies where institutions are concerned, and their relationship with the digital commons needs careful framing.

Public design as public formation requires the early identification of the groups concerned with an issue and a means to involve them in refining the definition of the issue and the design of the project itself. The process should be open-ended and however publics transform over time, they should retain that agency.

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