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Innovation and our Digital Society

As 'mayor' of the 'Digital City' (DDS) in Amsterdam, Marleen Stikker in 1993 developed one of the first free gateways and virtual communities on the internet. A place where many citizens, organisations, companies and publishers made their first steps on the electronic highway. 

In the same year as the DDS opened, she founded Waag Society as a media-lab, developing creative technological applications for social innovation. Waag Society is an Amsterdam-based institute for art, science and technology. Waag Society makes mobile city-games for youth, develops story-tables for the elderly and researches the possibilities for networked performances, among other things. The Creative Learning Lab focuses on new ways of education. Waag Society is also concerned with the social effects of the internet: new ways of distribution, copyright systems, civilian authorship and cross media developments. Therefore, Waag Society advocates Open Design, cooperates in Creative Commons Netherlands and informs on e-culture through Waag Society Magazine.

When you developed the Digital City (DDS) in 1994, what did members of your virtual community want out of their interactions with one another? Have you seen the impulses that motivate virtual communities develop since then, or have they remained largely the same? Does it depend on the community?

Technology determines our society; our DDS community consisted of people who did not take the world for granted and wanted to take matters in their own hands. It was a time of curiosity driven exploration. Technology should be shaped to be useful to all; in those days it belonged to the experts and had to become public domain. This “open movement” still motivates Waag Society and our network today, although more means are available. It is not only about the internet anymore, but about technology in a larger sense. 

The internet can be enabling and empowering, or be used to create new power structures or divide wealth. The extent of the social innovation agenda matters to us – there is a tension between the open, disruptive movement and conservative forces.

The terms “social media” and “community” sometimes seem to be void of meaning. The drive to make people take responsibility for a technology-dominated society is still very much alive since we started in 1994. Commercially driven communities behave very differently from producer driven networks; Facebook for instance is not community driven, the shareholders hold the reigns, it is all about usability and closed-in vendors. Our network of pioneers produces by creating new frontiers on the internet. In that sense we feel that DDS was a prototype of the internet itself; the city contained all the possibilities we see on the web now, including the communities surrounding it.

Waag Society sees itself as a medialab—a kind of digital social innovation incubator, cooking up new ways to deal with social issues. What have been your most successful innovations? Are there any experiments that you had hoped would be more successful than they were? What were the barriers?

For quite some time we have been involved in what is now called “serious gaming;” we thought about how adventure games can play a role in education. As early as 1997 we created multi-user learning adventures like Demi-Dubbel.  We experimented with city planning in the project Transparent Amsterdam - projecting data on city maps before there was any such thing as Google maps. Next to this, we created mobile learning projects like Frequency 1550 long before GPS was integrated in our phone or app-stores existed.

Some other innovations we are proud of are in the field of healthcare; developing easily accessible technology for those who need care, like a mobile storytable, Scottie, the “Design for our Future Self” program – in all projects social inclusion plays a big role.

Recently, we have been one of the instigators in the thinking & practice of Open Design; we published the first comprehensive book, Open Design Now –why design cannot remain exclusive. You can buy it or wait to get it for free, it is now 28 percent open and downloadable…

One of the projects that was really difficult to realize was Sensornet, which gives people responsibility for their environment by measuring CO2 levels etc. at home – real citizens research. Unfortunately, this was too disruptive for the existing powers. We are working on a comeback for Sensornet though….

How do you judge the success of Waag Society innovations?

Mainly by their impact. Each project needs to contribute to our goals (empowering people through creative technologies) raise discussion & new insights for our peers and society in general and last but not least, validating the research project in the form of a product or service. To that extent we have founded our own incubators, Waag Products and Media Guild.

You are very involved with the Creative Commons movement in the Netherlands and the Open Innovation agenda in general. Where do you stand on Intellectual Property and Copyright law? What are the benefits of sharing insights under an Open Innovation model, and what are the limits?

Yes, we feel we are evangelists for open innovation, open content through Creative Commons and open data. We explore the possibilities with our open design research and publication as well as many “Apps for” contests organized by our Open Data lab. It accelerates innovation and goes hand in hand with breakthrough technology. People gain responsibility also; the Owner’s Manifesto’s famous slogan “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it” says it all.

What kinds of virtual tools do you feel would most benefit the Social Innovation Europe community at this stage in its development?
We feel high quality tools for sharing are essential. Through the Dialogue café, Fablabs and Cinegrid system for instance, we see new networks and communities connect to share knowledge, create and innovate together. Recently we joined forces with LetShare, another networking tool which changes our ideas about work.