Welcome to Open Lab: Athens

Open Lab has a longstanding interest in the connections between technology and political activism and engaging local communities in decisions that affect them. In the summer of 2016 this research expanded to Greece, with the opening of Open Lab: Athens.

The financial crisis has led to huge changes to Greek society, including the development of a solidarity movement. Open Lab’s first ‘lablet’ aims to work with this movement to design and develop technologies that could facilitate more solidarity structures.

Open Lab has traditionally favoured participatory and embedded research, and OL: Athens is a further example of this: university researchers are working directly alongside citizens and solidarity groups.

OL: Athens is led by Vasilis Vlachokyriakos from Open Lab, in collaboration with researchers from universities across Europe, including Newcastle University, Northumbria University and Swansea University from the UK, Hasselt University in Belgium and Saarland University in Germany. OL: Athens also includes developers to design and develop technologies in collaboration with solidarity groups. The lablet also receives funding from the EPSRC Digital Economy Research Centre at Open Lab, Newcastle University.

OL Athens outsideIn addition to working with technology, the OL: Athens researchers will work closely with local communities. Volunteering and engaging with people involved in the solidarity movement forms a key part of the researchers’ work.

Athens provides a unique opportunity to learn about self-organisation and solidarity movements, and OL: Athens aims to combine the issues and values of the solidarity structures with the development of technology. Vasilis explained: “With the establishment of a local lab in Athens, we sought to begin to develop a collaborative relationship with these groups with the intention of assisting the development of technologies that would support them in their day-to-day activities.”

Currently the lablet is focussing on schools, health care, food provision and local democracy, although the specific areas of research will be determined by the solidarity structures that exist.

Eirini Schoinaraki worked as an intern at OL: Athens during its initial months. “During the past few years, Greece has experienced a long list of changes and is currently experiencing a new period of changes not only on a political / economic level but socially and culturally as well,” she said.

“This has led to an increase in solidarity movements within Greece and I strongly believe that technology will help in facilitating these changes by enabling citizens to progress their ideas and actions. That is why I believe that the initiatives and support provided by OL: Athens can bring about a good change and positively influence Greece’s solidarity movement growth.”

For more information please contact Vasilis Vlachokyriakos.

Newcastle’s parks: present and future

Funding cuts – under the UK’s austerity measures – have put huge financial pressure on many areas of local government service provision. One such service is local parks, which have seen their budgets slashed in an effort to minimise the impact on other areas.

In practice, this means that fewer full-time staff are available to local parks, increasing their reliance on volunteers from local communities.

Public concern has risen about the conditions of the Newcastle’s parks and their future. This has prompted the Council to look for and consider creative solutions for their funding and maintenance, with special consideration given to the opportunities they offer for social activities and the benefits they provide for health and wellbeing.

The extent of the threat, and public concern for local parks, has led the Communities and Local Government Committee to launch an inquiry into public parks to examine the impact of reduced local authority budgets on parks serivices.

It is in this context that, since November 2015, Open Lab has been collaborating with Newcastle park services, park rangers, friends of parks and volunteers’ groups to explore the potential of digital technology to support the delivery of park services.

The ongoing project has developed through a series of engagements and the development of Parks2026—a board game that aims to support different stakeholders (rangers, volunteers, friends of parks, park services officers), examine possible futures scenarios and consider creatively and collaboratively possible solutions for the multifaceted aspects at play in the running of park services. Concurrently Open Lab has also begun to explore how digital technologies might support civic learning activities in parks, which have also been significantly reduced due to the cuts.

Open Lab’s involvement with Newcastle Park Services and volunteers’ groups will continue over the next few months, exploring how design tools and technology can support the examination and decision-making processes towards creative and practical solutions to keep the city’s parks a public asset we can all enjoy and care for.

For more information please contact Clara Crivellaro.