Why we’re building Alternative Infrastructures (and what they mean for incumbents)
In trying to make sense of the nascent field of civic crowdfunding, one of my biggest questions is “why is crowdfunding happening now, and in these particular situations?” The current popularity of the methodology is hard to miss. But why now? What are the needs that civic crowdfunding is meeting that weren’t being met previously?
We can look to the creative industries, in which crowdfunding has enjoyed its biggest successes to date, for some clues. Crowdfunding is most attractive to creative professionals who are unable to access existing funding options (such as record labels, retailers or professional investors) or to whom the fees and contracts associated with existing funding arrangements are prohibitive to their potential livelihood.
Civic projects that are turning to crowdfunding are often occurring in areas that lack access to political and financial capital. For instance, in areas where public investment has declined significantly, among communities that lack the socio-political capital to lobby decision-makers to invest in their neighborhoods, or among communities that want more autonomy in determining their own development.
My colleague Eduardo Marisca has been reaching some similar conclusions about how and why creative networks mobilize themselves, in his study of Peru’s video game development industry. In exchanging our research, we’ve discovered several common features that help characterize the growth of both creative networks and civic crowdfunding — a concept we’re calling “Alternative Infrastructures”.
In both cases, the first movers are those for whom existing infrastructures do not work. The movements themselves lead to the development of alternative infrastructures — infrastructures that do not seek to replace existing ones, but to serve groups that are at the margins of established institutions and processes. As Eduardo puts it, “Alternative infrastructures are not so much about undermining institutions, as they are about assembling together alternative possible futures.”
To explain what we mean by infrastructure, Eduardo draws on the work of anthropologist Brian Larkin among others. I was also inspired by Susan Leigh Star’s influential article “The Ethnography of Infrastructure” which notes that infrastructure “means different things to different groups and it is part of the balance of action, tools and the built environment.” Reflecting on her work, Daniel Kreiss recently described infrastructure as “the technical artifacts, organizational forms, and social practices that provide background contexts for action.”
This mix of the technical, organizational and social is critical to the success of civic crowdfunding as an alternative infrastructure. As a technical infrastructure it is a series of web sites that host campaigns and process their payments; as an organizational infrastructure it is a means by which communities can assume responsibility for development of projects; as a social infrastructure it supports the circulation of ideas and the building of consensus around them. To be sure, this is an idealized conception of civic crowdfunding, but it can also be a systematic means of critiquing the development of the field.
In conceptualizing alternative infrastructures, we’re also interested in the role that they play vis a vis existing infrastructures. As Eduardo puts it, it’s not just “hacking” to realize a specific endpoint. Can an alternative method of getting something done not only get it done, but also exert influence on the existing, broken method? Our view is that alternative infrastructures do that, in several ways.
Firstly, as a demonstration of another route to influence: a community can use a crowdfunding campaign as a means to not only build something but also to signal support for an idea and a neighborhood. This could mean, for example, that a community seeks to self-organize to create a community resource instead of lobbying a political representative to achieve the same goal, which will likely over time affect representatives’ perceptions of their influence and role.
Secondly, by changing and expanding the range of people who are able to access capital or resources, alternative infrastructures expand the marketplace of ideas, values and choices available. The successful crowdfunding of previously difficult-to-fund projects, such as a community center in a disadvantaged neighborhood, demonstrates the potential for successful community-owned public spaces in other places. San Francisco recently launched Living Innovation Zones, a radical idea that opens up sites across the city in which organizations and individuals can apply to operate installations that benefit and educate the community. The idea was partly inspired by the Urban Prototyping Festival, which itself could be characterized as an alternative infrastructure for civic innovation.
Thirdly, alternative infrastructures compel actors to behave differently than they would using existing models: the crowdfunded musician is accountable and connected to his or her fans in a direct way — a relationship that would be impossible to establish through retail record sales or even live concerts. Over the longer term, successful alternative infrastructures are therefore likely to influence the way that actors using incumbent infrastructures behave.