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Communitary Science

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by Felipe Fonseca

For the last decade and a half, the growing dissemination of network technologies opened ways for new forms of knowledge based on collaborative and distributed social arrangements. This is a patent trend on the free software movement, for example. The movement already existed before the commercial internet, but once individuals and groups were able to use these networks to learn from one another, it gained a critical mass. The result was the emergence of self-managed information ecosystems, based on a hacker ethic that pushes forward the collaborative evolution of shared knowledge.

Network communication also influenced other movements: the radical disintermediation of cultural production , the multiplication of spaces for public debate – such as blogs and social networks — the availability of didactic multimedia resources and so on. In all these areas, words such as “free”, “distributed”, “collaborative”, “self managed” started to gain momentum.

More than a mere resistance against the growing pressure for the commercial control of intellectual property, these experiences point to new forms of learning and new ways to build a cultural imagery and a collective identity.

More recently, the dynamics of online networks for the development of shared knowledge have inspired the creation of physical spaces that work as interfaces between these networks and their local surroundings. Hackerspaces, fablabs, experimental labs are open spaces that explore “convergence”, “discovery” and “sharing”.

Such places are on the border between technology development, contemporary art, design, education and activism. They operate in a flexible and dynamic way, catalyzing the creation of knowledge, learning and non-linear, collective and networked ways of producing culture.

From the garage to the neighborhood

Some of the spaces mentioned above are part of a movement called “garage science” (developed by Sergio Amadeu on an article for the magazine A Rede). Projects that adopt this perspective combine collaborative online networks, the scientific method, the easy access to electronic equipment – culling data from the surrounding space, storing, formating and sharing it – and the availability of scientific knowledge online. They make experiments with cultures of bacteria, try to envision the principles of permaculture in free digital technologies, work on the creation of alternatives for generating and storing energy, on collective mapping of localities, on the use of applied knowledge to intervene in the urban space and many other fields of great relevancy for our days.

In 2009, the well known Medialab Prado from Madrid organized a meeting called “Interativos: Ciência de Bairro”, that proposed a step beyond the garage: the use of science in communities and social groups. The event produced 10 experimental projects that involved tens of people coming from Europe, Latin America and United States. The idea was to highlight the science produced in home laboratories, to which are credited inventions such as the electric lamp, the radioactivity, antibiotics and the personal computer.

It’s a proposition that seeks to give the scientific knowledge the same openness and multiplicity that have been possible in the production of culture, education and free software thanks to the collaborative online networks. An interesting comparison can be made: the same way the cultural production is gradually freeing itself from the intermediation of big institutions, science has, too, the potential to escape the bureaucratic bonds of academic research and the profit biased research for commercial purposes. In a certain way, it’s the opening of the perspective of innovation to areas that could make a good use of it.


Innovation is a diffuse concept that may be understood in various ways. In general, nowadays, we tend to associate innovation with the creation of intellectual property – inventions with profit purposes. It’s important to criticize this association of ideas and explore other conceptual, methodological and practical ways to stimulate the development of socially relevant innovation, based on open protocols, open knowledge, collaborative governance and network communication. The online networks may be seen as prototypes for new creative arrangements and the sharing of free knowledge. It’s necessary to think and create experimental laboratories that work as interfaces between collaborative online networks and the urban space, operating in the intersection between art, technology, education, science, activism and society.


The influence of science of the contemporary imagery – from the “scientific administration” to “quantic relationships” is notorious. However, it’s necessary to question the superficial appropriation of this reference and its subsumption to the logics of consumption-oriented media system. But to what extent the emergence of the “garage science” movement is not conditioned to this ingenuous understanding of science? What standpoints should these experimental open spaces adopt to avoid limiting themselves to the reproduction of childish chemical experiences, rudimentary experiments of classic mechanics or the mere monitoring of spaces? How to assure that they don’t fall into the reproduction of the alienating abstraction of the industrial-academic complex? Can the scientific method be employed to the solution of daily issues? What scientific elements can be brought to the daily life? How could they be paired with the latent popular knowledge about the optimization of resources and the management of scarcity and deprivation? These are important questions.

The recent development of programs for the universalization of the access to the internet – in schools, NGOs and public policies such as the telecenters – rehearses the development of a public infrastructure of networked communication, under the umbrella of what we usually call “digital inclusion”. But what kind of inclusion these projects offer? Are they passive spaces that train for the consumption? Or, on the contrary, do they offer a critical appropriation of knowledge to develop people’s creative potential ? Many of these projets are virtual spaces for the exploring of community science, connected to networks and finding solutions for local issues online. How to make the best use of these spaces?
This article was written with the support of Centro Cultural da Espanha in São Paulo.



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