Open Source Heroine: Nina Bianchi, Principal at The Work Department

Contributor / Interview / Open Source

Just because it's an open source system doesn't mean people will know how to use it.

The Commotion Construction Kit has been described as “open source infrastructure” and has instructed communities on how to create adaptible IT infrastructure, making open wireless networks customizable by any community of any size. The project also espouses a new open ideology at its core: that the tools of communication need to be communicated in themselves. The Work Department is a partner communications design agency that has engendered the design think necessary to teach open mesh networks, and here we talked to its principal, Nina Bianchi.

Nina Bianchi

Paperhouses: We like to interview people in similar design and open source platforms, or in the creative share space, and of course our primary subject is architecture but certainly urbanism and infrastructure are important thematics, which makes the Commotion Construction Kit so interesting, but could you start by telling us what your role is in it?

Nina Bianchi: Sure. Well… to begin, I think I have to go a little bit back on the history of the project because the beginnings of the idea happened years ago. Initially I was prototyping with my at-the-time primary collaborator, Joshua Breitbart. We were prototyping different games and aspects of exercises that would bring communities together around the idea of mesh networks. That term in itself is a little hard to understand, a little obtuse so (we talk about) the idea of community wireless, prototyping games and different instances. That led to all these units and modules that could be part of a larger platform that we then invite others to contribute to in this open way, where we are creating modules. Other communities can adapt them, modify them, create their own modules that are based on their own unique circumstances. My role was in a lot of the research and development. Also, I come from a visual background—I’m a designer—so I was interested in how to make something relatively inaccessible like IT training, more open, more friendly, more humanistic; something that creates a shared vocabulary. And that’s both visually and in terms of the language… that everyone, from community organizers to engineers can use and understand.

Paperhouses: It’s interesting you mention your design background and how that enabled a developing of openness and humanism of this mesh networking, because one of the stereotypes of the open source movement is that design is immaterial or that there’s something deliberately under-designed about open source platforms. I suppose this is a rhetorical question but do you feel like design actually makes IT for example more accessible?

Yeah, I think integration of design thinking and design processes in language into the software development process is essential and it’s something that doesn’t happen very often. Because again, a lot of the open source movements are emerging from ad hoc relations often on an international scale, and I think it’s changing but hopefully something like Commotion Community Kit helps facilitate that, because I don’t think it’s something a lot of technologists think of. In some situations like Google where there are a lot of resources, and a lot of attention to design and creative thinking, yes, but for a lot of smaller open source operations it’s not always the case. I’m realizing the important role that designers play. I feel like my role is more like a translator at times as well. That might mean going to a code sprint, not necessarily to hammer away at writing code but to observe and learn the inner-workings of the engineering process, and then working in the field, interacting with community members, people who maybe don’t even speak English. The role that design plays as a facilitation, so that to the other person is in the process as well.

Paperhouses: Designer as translator. That’s interesting. When did Commotion Community Kit actually materialize as what it is now?

It officially launched at the end of 2013, however we’ve been using different forms of it, again, dating back to around 2010 where it wasn’t the Commotion Community Kit, but working in a participatory way with communities to establish design language. Because it does use a very generic sort of approach to graphics. It was YEARS in the making. It’s still very much a work in process.

Ph: How many people are on this team working on this? I mean certainly it’s open so there are a lot of members but how many people are in your team?

My team… so there’s three key partners in this process. My team is called the Work Department and we’re a communications design and development studio based in Detroit with partners all over the country. We were tackling the design facilitation process. We are working closely with the New America Foundation for Open Technology. They have offices in New York and their main hub is in Washington, DC. They’re officially releasing it as their open source tech tool, but it’s a partnership. A lot of the curriculum was developed in harmony with Allied Media Projects, which is a community organizing group also based in Detroit with a national network.

Ph: One of the components of this that makes it so compelling is the community outreach element. The fact that it’s working around issues of urbanism explicitly or implicitly, but there was a recent piece about crowd-sourcing neighborhood infrastructure improvement, as in literally, sidewalks and public spaces. But do you work a lot with local governments?

We are working on it. It’s a challenge because particularly a lot of the test networks and testing the CCK has happened in Detroit, DC, Red Hook and then now overseas in India and the Middle East so there’s a lot of international relationships happening with it. But a lot of times in a critical situation like the city of Detroit, or Red Hook during Sandy, it is food, shelter, water. Emergency response. It’s pretty easy to see what are the fundamental human needs. Coming in at a very close fourth is communications. So as it pertains to mesh network, as it pertains to passing on skills and having this open conversation about how you can create a communications infrastructure that acts as the glue between food/water/shelter. All these things are happening, what’s the thread that ties it together—communications. In Detroit we’re in a pretty extreme moment of transition and there’s never been a really great open line to local government here. Hopefully that’s changing in the near future, so I don’t know but there’s not a lot of awareness. But awareness is part of my goal and even speaking statewide or raising awareness, it’s a really long process.

Ph: A natural extension of Commotion Construction Kit I feel, would be to have that macro level of collaboration but the development happens on the ground, which is the beauty of open source. I asked about public works because in The Economist piece, crowdsourcing was seen as making a virtue out of necessity because local government continues to ignore or delay in improving infrastructure; the people take it upon themselves to do it.

That’s really interesting. Where was this piece run, again?

Ph: It was The Economist, but the argument was that while it’s really smart for people to be coming up with these solutions, it undermines the local government and brings up the debate of who’s going to take care of what. I’d imagine Detroit is a really good test case for that scenario. I can’t imagine what’s going on, and I’m only seeing the “ruin porn” they run on the news, but what’s it like in Detroit right now as a company in the middle of a city-bankruptcy?

It’s interesting. I’ve been based in Detroit for over 10 years. I travel quite a bit and have worked in different places but I’m from this city. Fortunately there are a lot of deep and rich relationships with people who are similar, and in times of crises there’s no one better to turn to than your peer. There are really strong natural peer-to-peer relationships. People working locally, compensate for different levels of broken infrastructure that haven’t been repaired. There is a lot of resiliency, and it’s not always in the mainstream media. But there have been a lot of brilliant things, that come from surviving and trying to make it work, and it becomes innovation along the way. Then there’s also been this second narrative of larger resources like Dan Gilbert coming through with his real estate endeavors. There are these large injections of money that are coming in. We’re in the middle of a really intense moment where there are all these conversations happening and I’ll be very curious to see how everything continues to go. As far as the Work Department we’re very fortunate to have relations with people inside the city and out, that’s been able to sustain us. Obviously we’re not a Fortune 500 company by any means (laughter), but I don’t think that’s really what we want. We’ve been able to work with a lot of diverse communities and I think we want to incubate systems and processes and ideas, so it’s not always transactional: here’s a piece of software, here’s a book or even here’s a design tool we’ll make for you. It’s more about building relationships. I feel very much that it’s mutually beneficial.


Ph: It sounds like the core ethos around open technology. You mentioned the opaqueness of the phrase “mesh networks” or mesh tools, but why is it different than just community wireless?

I think the idea of community wireless is somewhat equal to mesh network but mesh being a little bit more opaque as you said, and the idea of mesh as a peer-to-peer network that accurately reflects the way community relationships are formed in real life. I think community wireless is an effort to make it more specific to communities, sort of peer-to-peer usage in real life, as opposed to mesh. Mesh is something that can be applied in many circumstances. This is more about local applications of scalable ad hoc networks.

Ph: The other side of this question about working with public government, would be to ask about your involvement with private corporations, but have you guys been developing this with larger corporations or companies interested in creating their own communities?

Not at all. Not at this point.

Ph: I mean in Silicon Valley there’s this funny way they call their headquarters “campuses” and it just makes me think about what’s considered the basic denominator for community, and how as you just said, mesh can be applied to a variety of circumstances. Not really a question but an observation I guess (laughter), about how to define community. What would you say is the biggest barrier or encouragement for Commotion Construction Kit. What could benefit the development of open infrastructure and inhibit it?

I think the most exciting part of the project as it continues to grow, is we’re not only providing a tool kit but it’s circulating skills and knowledge. A critique I have of open source and open data, is that just because it’s open does’t mean people will know how to use it. So there has to be knowledge around all the facets that go into the process, in order for more people to be able to engage with it. I’m really excited about that. And my core passion is ultimately how you can make everyone, people, our lives, more engaged in the world around them; in contributing and feeling invested. I think this is a nice starting point. Like, here are some tools that explain a whole lot and can pave the way to more conversations, including with you! I think (Paperhouses’) point of open sourcing architecture and making available plans and schematics is pretty exciting. And the more instances of this happening, we can all be sharing and learning from one another.

Ph: I can tell you from our point of view, one of the reasons Paperhouses happened is because it’s astonishing that so many other design media have been blown open by information technology while architecture remains relatively closed. You still have to hire an architect, they still have to be accredited, and it’s still difficult to get that accreditation. Those systems are very closed networks of information and yet the information itself is intuitive. It’s not neurosurgery. A lot of it has to do with industry and certainly the fact that it requires a relationship with real estate and property and the idea of property. Those things should be called out for what is the value of community if everything is owned, and certainly some things should be owned but other things ought to be shared. Information should be open and shared. So I think we have  a lot of shared ideas at that cellular level. And I’m not versed in comm technology news but I imagine it’s impossible to develop it without running into public works, so the tools for skills and knowledge—there’s a huge world of possibility there and that can mean anything. How does that work with what’s already there, in the public realm.

It’s very refreshing to hear you say all this, because again I do think that on many levels having a lot of shared beliefs—and I’ve worked with architects before… I hate stereotyping but I do think there’s real opportunity to think about the role of communications. And communications design and architecture share a lot of design thinking but communication is the invisible layer of translation that is frequently overlooked. It would be important in working with local government. My dream would be to activate national government or international policy. That would be wonderful. I think leaving room to pay attention to how communications happen facilitates more inclusive planning.

Ph: Do you guys have business or organizations you consider benchmarks or inspirational, or just good models for your work?

I think certainly for years I’ve been a fan of the Center for Urban Pedagogy. Joshua Breitbart is actually one of the founders of the organization so I was a fan of the organization and then to serendipitously end up in a situation where I was in deep collaboration made sense in many ways. For me personally, there’s Muriel Cooper, a woman who inadvertently founded the MIT Media Lab. (How she) focalized ways to make so much material more accessible is really inspirational.

See Nina Bianchi's project archive here, and learn more about The Work Department here.