Open Lab Athens is a non-for-profit, digital civics research and technology development lab. It aims to support and extend cooperative work through the design of digital technology and participatory processes. We do this through participatory action research with cooperative and grassroots organizations that contribute to the development of ethical socio-technical innovations.
Our members come from diverse backgrounds (i.e. computing science and engineering, sociology and humanities), which in combination with our employed participatory methods give shape to an interdisciplinary approach to technology design. Open Lab Athens operates as a network of academics, practitioners and researchers interested to form and participate in a collective that gets involved with communities of social innovation and designs technology to support and extend these.
Resources and People
We draw our resources from the network of collaborating institutions and occasionally successful research grants. We use such funding to employ people that subscribe to our values and vision on a project basis, with a goal to include them as full members in the organisation and running of the lab.
Design for social innovation
We use the term ‘socio-political innovation’ as a frame to describe grassroots initiatives that emerge from the creative (re)combination of existing resources (from social capital to historical heritage, from traditional craftsmanship to accessible advanced technology) with the aim to achieve a more socially just and equal society.
In this regard, our work attempts to “design for social innovation”: we embed into these contexts so as to activate, maintain, proliferate and orient such practices towards sustainability. We see our work in OLA as a co-design process contributing at social change. Currently, we work with urban social movements and more specifically on service innovation through solidarity practices, social care, housing in urban settings, labour rights and cooperativism, and self-organisation and municipalism. These topics, rather than being predefined are dynamically produced and transformed depending on the contexts and the grassroots initiatives we engage in.
We see ‘social innovation’ as the sociopolitical process through which communities rethink and reimagine themselves and the ways to govern themselves. This is a long-term and relational process that is embedded in specific contexts, responds to injustices, exclusions and displacements and may lead to the invention of alternative, new politics.
Participatory Action Research
We employ a series of methodologies and underlying methods depending on the particularities of the contexts that we engage in, the needs and aspirations of the specific groups we relate with, and the skills of the members involved in such encounters. For this reason, our work is reflective, relational, as well as interdisciplinary, as it asks for the creative collaboration of social analysis and digital design: as a result, all involved methodologies depart from Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach.
Democracy at Work
We understand PAR not as a readymade approach that we implement upon communities but as a way to become influenced and relate with these so as to co-design innovative processes. Such a perspective, combined with our focus on design and our commitment to come up with systems and processes that question established power relations, resemble early Scandinavian models of Participatory Design and their struggles for “democracy at work”. At the same time, our engagement in communities in the South of Europe leads us to acknowledge the need to transform such models, theories and methodologies to the traditions and realities on the ground.
Example methods of such participatory, action and design oriented approach includes, for example: participating in already existing spaces of social innovation (e.g. participating in assemblies, providing IT support etc.); the configuration and deployment of open source systems as a form of system prototyping (e.g. communication tools, eClass systems etc.); creating the participatory “third spaces” for co-designing future directions (e.g. organisation of events, meetings and festivals, PD workshops for the collection and analysis of social clinics oral histories etc.).