RE:PUBLICA - What I learned about Cities as open systems, political memes, makerplaces and migration due to loss of habitat

I’m Yannick and this is the first time I write for Edgeryders, I went to one of the Brussels Events about failure and I’m really thankful to have gotten access to three days of RE:PUBLICA. As a tech-savvy activist, this was Walhalla. RE:PUBLICA takes once a year place in Berlin and tries to connect all loose ties around digital culture in the world together. It has an amazing spectrum of speakers: from activist to scientists, hackers, entrepreneurs, NGOs, journalists, social media and marketing experts, and many others. For the 2016 edition, they offered 770 international speakers from 60 countries that made up the 500 hour-long program. It was like being a child in a Lego store, you want all the sets, but you only can go home with a couple of them.

Day 1:

The City as an open System – Richard Sennet

As an amateur urbanist I chose the perfect place to start my marathon. Richard Sennet is an Economic and Sociology professor that specialised in urban dynamics but also Internet structures. He opened his talk with an interesting view on smart cities. Smart Cities are in fact cities of control and are mostly used to help high investors do ‘core investing’. Core investing is a practice in urbanism where an investor build a building wherever it is calculated to be most profitable and doesn’t take into consideration the urban environment nor the possible connection of that building with the local sphere.

Instead of investing in the smart city model he proposed to invest in a totally open system. For him this system isn’t one without rules, but one that can be organized through organic synergies. A city is a complex system where ambiguity is more often the solution than newly implemented rules. In that visible we have to create more boundaries then borders. A boundary is an edge that still can be explored; a border is blocked by rules. He then explained how a mall implementation in the 80’s was the example of the boundaries / borders situation. The city of New York wanted to implement a new supermarket inside Spanish Harlem and was hesitating to put it on the boundary between Spanish Harlem and the rich neighbourhoods. But the rich neighbourhoods didn’t want that shop so they pushed it back inside Spanish Harlem. The boundary became a border and the small chance of having interaction between two social classes was but aside to enforce the closed system.

For Sennet, this simple example of urban planning showed how we as a city always want the least conflict-filled solution, even though the conflict could result in an organic and dynamic neighbourhood. We have to open up to the possible changes so new models can occur. To quote Aristotle’s Republica: A city lives from his differences.

Decentralized Energy System

After a lecture, time for a workshop. This time, it is about the future of Energy and how each citizen could produce his own. But what module would that future citizen prefer? After a short introduction about how digitalization, decentralization, and Energy management tools are changing the energy market we are asked to find our own solutions. What could we come up with in less than an hour?

The result: a story about an apartment block where owners and renters are one another’s suppliers of energy. The owner of an apartment could decide in which clean energy the house could invest and have an internal energy market. But even the tenant with a car could supply energy trough the new tesla technology and bring it back to the grid. Everything monitored by open source Energy Monitoring. Yes, it looked like a dream, but even then it is possible.

Autodesk / Makerspace

In between two talks i decided to go to the Makerspace co-hosted by Autodesk and found an amazing project called Smart Hydro , a project designed with the Autodesk tools that could provide clean energy to small villages. Not only was the prototype awesome. The idea is to make a hydraulic turbine that can even be put in small rivers and wouldn’t kill any fish is simply terrific.

Memes & Politics

To end the day a bit more light headed I chose to catch up on the dynamics of memes and their importance to politics. In fact, it was just an excuse to laugh with Putin riding a bear. Surprisingly it got a lot of things right about the importance of internet jokes and politics and how it can way in on the public debate like when GamerGate happened. This event was one of the biggest one discussing the place of woman in video games. Thanks to sites like Reddit and communities of meme makers the discussion took place.

Day 2:


Day two started really early with a brief talk about the Makernet concept. Some of you are maybe aware that the fablab and other makers movement is getting to a certain point where they need to scale up to become an important worldwide movement. Makernet is willing to do the framing work for such idea. Bringing all kind of fablabs in contact to each other through a platform where you could easily find any fablab related opportunity but also the skills and knowledge needed to handle the machine. The idea is to design globally and produce locally, anywhere in the world.

The most interesting part was the fact they wanted to help developing countries to immediately leap a gap of two hundred years of industrial revolution in a couple of years through shared knowledge, their platform Makepedia and the fablabs. The big question I’m still asking is how can we scale Makerspaces, cause at the moment it stays a place to build prototypes.

Autodesk / Makerspace #2

I couldn’t help myself and i needed to check some other things out at the makerspace, and to my surprise, there was one of the people behind a really interesting project showing his prototype: a machine you can build yourself to recuperate plastic and make moulds out of it. On paper and on their website it looks fantastic, and after testing and analysing the prototype myself i still was convinced by the idea. It’s true the prototype wasn’t ideal, but behind it was a team showing that you can make those machines yourself, hoping other people could improve it with them, bringing the open source thinking to a larger audience. I hope soon I can test their machine to make your own 3D printing material, and so any bad print could be used again.

What is behind the massive migration: a loss of habitat

I never heard Saskia Sassen speak before, but after this conference I now see the world differently. In the news, we always talk about two kinds of refugees: the war refugee and the climate refugee. The first one is generally accepted, the second one sometimes but for Ms. Sassen there is a third one that is being forgotten and she calls them habitat refugees: people that lost the place they live for many different reasons that aren’t war nor climate change.

She explains the principle of Landgrabs: it’s a technique done by big companies to buy land in poor countries, develop plantation with a lot of pesticides and after a couple of years leave the dead land behind. This happens in countries like Qatar or Bosnia, where the local farmers don’t have any power anymore to save the ground they are working on. They stay behind with just the bad ground and have to wait sometimes 10 – 15 years to get back. A lot of those people leave those places searching for better opportunities.

Another example is the way Coca-Cola and Nestlé deal with water supplies in India. Because of regulation, they don’t pay more for the water than a private consumer so they use all the water they can and leave behind an empty water pond and ineluctable damages to the local ecosystem and population.

As a third example she explained how China’s extracts in Africa: they build the mine, they build the railroad, they build the harbour. When there is nothing anymore to extrude they just leave everything behind. Again leaving destruction to the people there that don’t have an own habitat.

All those examples could look like economic migration but when she started talking about the kids from South America trying to get north because of the violence and drug/gang problem in South America I understood what she was trying to explain: we need to consider rethinking our etiquettes. Cause all those kids fleeing their city because it just isn’t safe anymore don’t fall under the war or climate etiquette, but still are in danger. That danger has been produced by a worldwide chaos and complex system of effects. Not letting those people pass the border is a crime against humanity.  Their habitat was destroyed and we aren’t seeing them as refugees.

Something we learned out of the European case: we don’t now at all how to deal with it. We have to listen to WHY they are coming, and we will find a lot of the Habitat migrants and understand the vastly more complex problem that is worldwide migration.


Re:Publica doesn’t only happens inside the building, and sometimes you encounter people that are all at Re:Publica for some reason but also have awesome projects outside of it. So in the afternoon of day two i followed Jay Cousins to learn about MakerPlatz and how a dead zone of the Berlin Wall become an integrated makerspace without too much gentrification around. What a trip.

Everything started a couple of years ago when the local chief of Planet Modulor wanted to implement a new shop in the neighbourhood. If you don’t know what Planet Modulor is: It’s the place every hobbyist wants to get lost in. But being more than an entrepreneur he wants to involve all the surrounding to the makers movement and finds a couple of guys wanting to start a co-working space. But the people having space are hesitating: do I risk renting my space to young people in the current climate?

That is when Andreas comes by and gives the man with the space a proposal: rent it out for 1€ /m2 and ask for an open book policy. If they are doing well, you can ask more. And he did well, cause now Betahaus has more than 5000m2 and is an active player in the Makerplatz ecosystem. The third and most impressive project was Prinzessingarten Kreutzberg that managed to modify a parking lot into a moveable garden. It’s being in an oasis in the middle of the city. A secret garden on the rocks. The energy that came out of it was simply amazing.

Image Credits: Aneeta Sarkasian - photographer unknown, sourced from ABC news | Smart Hydro - photographer unknown, sourced from Smart Hydro website | Saskia Sassen - photographer unknown, sourced from La Repubblica article. NB: All images were sourced from an image search for images labelled for reuse.


The bit about refugees

Hi @Yannick, welcome to Edgeryders! Can’t remember if we crossed paths at LOTE5 in Brussels, but I’m happy it ended up with you getting to re:publica.

Loved your account about Saskia Sassen’s talk and “habitat refugees” - looked it up online and found a recording here, for whoever else is interested.

What I find strange is that whenever we talk about refugees (all 3 categories) I either have conversations about 1) groups on the ground making ends meet at very basic levels - essentially coping (I heartily recommend the story of Calais - The Jungle reported by Alex Levene) or 2) instrumental politics and discourse that doesn’t leave anything to add to it - it’s simply that disconnected from ground realities.

Somehow groups wishing to change this are left with no middle ground - just hacking our way through regimes: taking the streets for even small victories, prototyping new approaches in areas with (still) abundant resources and hoping to be left alone etc. She says something interesting about ending regimes though… do you see any need for more radical, scaled up community responses? And by the way, what’s your area of activism? :stuck_out_tongue:

Radical response for the refugees problem

Hey @Noemi thanks for the response. The most interesting solution i saw about the refugees crisis was one by Rutgher Bregman where he says (in dutch) that we simply need to abolige borders and his theory makes sense. Because any solution we are trying now, people will always find a solution to get into another country if they really need that, so why not just open borders and let society reorganise itself. People get scared really fast and they react by shutting the boarders (look at europe) but all the studies say that having refugees grows the economy on a long term for example

Damn I wish this article was in english, I definitely agree with this radical but maybe necessary idea …


Can you cite some of those studies showing how refugees grow the economy long term?



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Study references

I found this article in the NY Times particularly enlightening:

working paper published last year by four economists found that immigration benefited local populations in 19 of the 20 industrialized countries they studied. Another study found that an influx of refugees into Denmark in the 1990s led native workers to switch to more skilled jobs and away from jobs that were mostly manual labor. As a result, some local workers earned higher wages. (Europe Should See Refugees as a Boon, Not a Burden)