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Summary: Towards a generative environment
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February 18, 2021
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Written by Shannon Dosemagen and Elizabeth Tyson

This summary is a wrap-up from our Fall 2020 work.

Last Fall the Open Environmental Data Project convened a Brain Trust of sixteen individuals and a smaller network of Project friends working across a diversity of fields such as design, law, data, governance, science and the environment. They helped us iterate on our ideas for a Generative Environment Framework and Environmental Trend Platform and scrutinized what seemed most challenging to help us identify our blind spots. During the first session we asked the trust to review our narrative and visual for the framework and help us answer: “What places in this model seem the most challenging and long-term and which seem ready to tackle in the short-term? What would be the most complex but perhaps critical change? What would be one big idea to focus on? What might this model work in parallel with?”  Following the first session we incorporated their feedback and turned our focus towards functionality. We convened the trust for a second time to help us address the question, “what does it look like to build, prototype, narrate, and research ways to bring the generative framework to life?”

As system builders, we are aware of our human faults like implicit bias. We are also aware of our human strengths like collaboration and creativity. In addition, a key tenant in project development under open philosophy is to share our journey so that others can replicate and build upon our work, and also identify and troubleshoot steps that might be replicating systemic biases or have unintended consequences. Working with the Brain Trust was an opportunity to iterate on our framework to help cultivate future plans for the Open Environmental Data Project focused on leveraging human creativity and building models that push us toward both improved and new systems in support of a shared, generative environmental vision.

Needless to say, we learned a lot. Here are some of the insights (or view our full insight summary):

  • Start getting into the details!
  • Clarify we, clarify beneficiaries -- who is this framework for?
  • Simplify vision -- build cohesion around the critical lens of multiple historic forces.
  • Creating a shared environmental ethic, not bubble ethics, will be a big challenge.
  • Sometimes scale isn’t as important as networks and instances of what works in approaches to environmental protection and management.
  • Case studies are essential. Audit expressions of power, as opposed to merely augmenting old systems of power or proposing radical new systems. If we could change one rule, what would it be?

Following the Brain Trust sessions we began synthesizing and separating ideas into two interlocking but complementary concepts we’re cultivating and advancing: a generative framework and the environmental trend platform. Below we summarize these approaches and identify the functional projects we will collaboratively begin to execute in year two of the Project.

The Generative Framework moves society towards accountable decision-making in environmental management and protection with an emphasis on throwing out the “tradeoff” narrative and emphasizing decision pathways that produce positive environmental externalities by leveraging our innate creative and collaborative human tendencies. This framework operates from the foundational assumption of the capacity for human self-limitation paired with our bill of responsibilities towards each other and our shared planet. We could leverage human creativity and ingenuity to go to mars and leave earth behind, we could continue on the path of least resistance in which 1% of the human planet owns 99% of the resources or we could harness and funnel our energy and resources towards a new Anthropocene, one in which our global capacity generates new environmental resources. We’re pretty good at consuming, but we are just as good at stewarding, growing, and healing.

The second concept, cultivating a socio-technical digital infrastructure for environmental trend data, operates from the foundational assumption and lived experience that our current digital infrastructure and the tools that accompany it are designed with our old systems in mind. The datafication of our world has arrived and we must address the existing tools that move scientific and environmental information between and among communities, government and the private sector, and build infrastructures that reflect the possibility of new systems of thought. The rise of low-cost tools that produce nontraditional data streams, along with networked data, machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies are reducing the timing of our information feedback cycles from days, months and years to milliseconds and minutes. And yet, the usability of this data by communities, the civic sector and governments to make informed decisions which advance equitable solutions to environmental protection and management, is lagging. We have a data addiction with no plans for how to make it most useful for the people who need it.  

We functionally envision the Project becoming a space for innovation, a pilot and prototype testbed, where new models and strategies are documented and disseminated for society to leverage, replicate and augment in their political, social and geographic contexts. Through cultivating a space for intellectual, socio-technical and narrative approaches, we can demonstrate within existing legal, economic, political and cultural systems what may be possible if we’re willing to let go of some of the old rules and open up a space for testing new governance models. After all, as Margaret Mead once said, “If the future is to remain open and free, we need people who can tolerate the unknown, who will not need the support of completely worked out systems or traditional blueprints from the past.” While we can improve our current systems, we also believe in the importance of testing out new blueprints, especially in this historic moment where democracy, the environment, and scientific integrity have been simultaneously imperiled.

In pursuit of our goals, work during year two of the project includes:

  • Workshops - Partner and collaborate with the U.S. federal legislative and executive branch, nonprofits and communities to host events that will serve as a model for catalyzing community solution-finding within the generative framework and advance new forms of knowing through nontraditional sources of data:
  • Thematic topics include: Open hardware; Defining a community vocabulary library (with respect to traditional knowledge, relative privacy needs); Community solutions workshops; Sociotechnical infrastructure building for the 21st century.
  • Pilots - Partner and collaborate with institutes, nonprofits, and universities to pilot environmental sensor networks to help articulate best practices for new data commons models in the environmental context.
  • Thematic topics include: Environmental rule auditing; Legal experimental pilots; Applying Non-zero Sum Game Theory to environmental decisions through simulations; Modeling a new framework for community input into lawmaking; Creating a prototype of the Civic Voice Archive.
  • Research Series - Conducting research in the form of case studies that identify, evaluate and summarize legal, economic and cultural incentive levers for advancing environmental generative actions.
  • Topics include: Generative framework case studies and Commons world building; New models for environmental data governance.  
  • Narrative Building - Multimedia short form and long-form which creates a body of narrative work allowing others to imagine a generative world.
  • Topics include: Legal, policy and economic narratives and future imaginaries that inspire those communities to think differently about their systems.

By the end of our second year we expect to have achieved several key milestones:

  • Expand upon and build community-level accounting and audit systems that reflect their “epistemic innovations” [1] for describing local level phenomena in regards to environmental risk. These concepts are communicated and recognized up and across governance scales.
  • Congressional districts, and communities, are prototyping potential civic voice models that capture the intersections of COVID relief and response, environmental justice, restoring environmental protections and context on environmental problem areas.
  • Innovation pathways are established that provide alternative problem-solving routes for existing extractive practices (that have historically created negative environmental externalities).

This year is dedicated to small pilots and prototypes using different approaches to drive change in social, technical, legal and economic spheres: community data governance, democratic processes, technical documentation and storycrafting. We anticipate landing at a place at the end of 2021 where these products and services will be ready to evolve and mature into ones that are able to be metabolized by communities, institutions and organizations, government, and businesses.

Thank you to the following individuals who participated in either our brain trust or friends network: Adam Calo (James Hutton Institute), Angela Eaton (Safecast), Anna Berti Suman (Tilburg University), Anouk Ruhaak (Mozilla Fellow), Astha Kapoor (Aapti Institute), Babitha George (Partner, Quicksand Design Studio), Bronwyn Agrios (Fellow, National Geographic), David Jensen (United Nations Environment Programme), Dr Erinma Ochu (Engaging Environments), Gwen Ottinger (Drexel University and Fair Tech Collective), Karien Bezuidenhout (Shuttleworth Foundation), Michelle Thorne (Mozilla Foundation), Pietro Michelucci (Human Computation Institute), Phoebe Higgins (Environmental Policy Innovation Center), Stephanie Nguyen (Consumer Reports).


[1] Ottinger, G. (forthcoming) Epistemic Innovation and the Dilemmas of Protest. In: Bécot, R. & Le Naour, G. (eds.), In the Shadow of the Petrochemical Smokestack (Paris: Le Seuil). Ottinger describes epistemic innovation as, “…inventing new concepts and categories that capture previously ignored experiences of marginalized groups, along with techniques for representing and quantifying those experiences.”