The LabGov Harlem project is focused on improving access to fast, high quality digital resources, notably including broadband internet, to neighborhoods in Harlem where such access remains lacking. The project will be an example of a constructed commons, bringing together residents and other local stakeholders in an iterative process to design and develop a co-governed, community-based high speed network. Formally entitled, “A Novel Architecture for Secure Energy Efficient Community-Edge-Clouds with Application in Harlem (SEEC Harlem)”, the Harlem project has secured a National Science Foundation grant and is in the early stages of development. A combination of private and public actors, as well as community members and scholars, are collaborating together to bring about the project’s goal of ending the digital divide in Harlem. Those involved include Silicon Harlem and researchers from the Universities of Arizona and Virginia, Georgetown, and Fordham. The project is supported in various ways by the City of New York and internet service providers such as Microsoft and Cisco.
This project takes a holistic approach to address the technical, legal, and
social challenges facing underserved urban communities experiencing a growing
digital divide. A novel community-owned edge cloud computing architecture is
investigated that disaggregates the edge equipment for lower cost, improved
energy efficiency, simplified management and intrinsically stronger security.
The project targets a community within Harlem for initial concept exploration.
Indeed, the Harlem community like many diverse urban communities is facing
obstacles that extend beyond broadband access and include the entire home,
office and IoT/smart city technology eco-system. Beyond the edge cloud, the
project will include development of low-cost KVM (Keyboard, Video, and Mouse)
systems that will be used by a diverse set of community members to establish
proof of concept and performance metrics for the edge cloud, and identify
system usability by community especially as it relates to closing the digital
Prototype hardware and software will be developed to study this architecture in both a lab environment, user trials, and in participatory technology assessments by users in the community. Optimal design rules will be derived based on experimental performance data and incorporating user constraints and use cases within the Harlem community. Community ownership and governance will be investigated as a means to overcome longstanding legal and social challenges. The project will provide a new dimension to and understanding of edge clouds and community network ownership that can be widely applied in smart city environments elsewhere. Disaggregated devices open up the potential for a new breed of consumer interfaces with dramatically lower cost and energy use – as well as simple software and hardware management and security. By virtualizing these technologies within the edge cloud, potentially transformative benefits can be realized. Such technology would provide a powerful tool in combating growing digital divides.
Community engagement is a key part of the SEEC Harlem project. Community representatives and actors work closely with the technology experts, scholars, and other private and public actors involved in the project and are key to its implementation.
Each of the 5 actors from the “quintuple helix” are actively
engaged as the project moves through the co-city process. These include
public authorities and representatives from the Manhattan Borough President and
Mayor’s Office of Technology, community business leaders and small business
owners, civic organizations such as church leaders and local nonprofits,
university researchers, and the local social innovator Silicon Harlem.
Community Network + Edge Cloud
SEEC Harlem seeks to create low cost, secure user devices, which are governed
by a shared, centralized IT management team that oversees a high performance
edge cloud accessible to everyone in the community.
A community network is viewed as a digitally constructed commons resource. Internet resources are co-governed; the benefits are shared equitably and are transferable; and the community is not only given access to the new resource, but opportunities to be trained and educated about how to best utilize the new resource.
Participatory Technology Assessments
Another key part of the Harlem project will be ensuring that assessments
are performed along the way to ensure its operability and functionality. This
will be a further way in which the community will be involved in bringing about
the project’s success, as community members, as the primary users of the new
technology, will report back on their experiences with the new
The Harlem Project’s Goals
This project will provide a new dimension to and understanding of edge
clouds and community network ownership that can be widely applied in smart city
environments elsewhere. Disaggregated devices open up the potential for a new
breed of consumer interfaces with dramatically lower cost and energy use – as
well as simple software and hardware management and security. By virtualizing
these technologies within the edge cloud, potentially transformative benefits
can be realized. Such technology would provide a powerful tool in combating
growing digital divides.
Project Leaders and Collaborators
A variety of individual are working collaboratively on the SEEC Harlem
project; these include: Dan Kilper (Lead, University of AZ), Clayton Banks
(Silicon Harlem), Bryan Carter (University of AZ), Rider Foley (University of
VA), Sheila Foster (Georgetown University), Bruce Lincoln (Silicon Harlem),
Olivier Sylvain (Fordham University), Malathi Veeraraghavan (University of VA),
and Ron Williams (University of VA).
Private and nonprofit actors assisting with the project include: Microsoft, Cisco, and Silicon Harlem.
LabGov Georgetown, based in Washington DC, in collaboration with the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University, is excited to launch the newest LabGov project in Baton Rouge, Louisiana based on the Co-City methodology. Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana with approximately 800,000 residents, is a city that is spatially stratified by race and income. Some describe it as a tale of “two cities” with higher quality housing, amenities and transportation in white areas and a lack of these amenities in black areas. Many of the city’s social and economic challenges are concentrated along the Plank Road corridor, one of the most blighted areas in all of Baton Rouge. The corridor is bordered by mostly commercial land uses, with residential uses in the intersecting side streets and extending for several blocks in either direction. Its four mile length is populated by a mixture of struggling or abandoned businesses, vacant lots and dilapidated buildings. Though a few sections of this commercial road have managed to remain viable, it still faces difficult social and economic challenges given the extent of the existing blight, the high number of violent crimes, and the widespread impoverishment in this area. However, the area also serves as a significant anchor for the neighborhoods that surround it and thus presents an opportunity for inclusive urban revitalization using the co-city approach.
The Co-City project will start by focusing on the Plank Road corridor, working with the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority (EBRRA). The EBRRA has an ambitious plan to revitalize the Plank Road corridor primarily through transit-oriented projects. This is, in part, due to the fact that the area around Plank Road has the highest concentration of zero car households and the second highest public transit ridership. LabGov and the Marron Institute have proposed to use the co-city approach as an entry point into the EBRRA’s comprehensive planning process. This approach would carefully guide the EBRRA through the co-city cycle – cheap talking, mapping, practicing, prototyping, testing, and modeling – used successfully in other cities. The first phase of the project will complete the cycle on a neighborhood scale before implementing the it on a broader scale and wider geographical area.
One of the core aims of the co-city approach is to promote and encourage community engagement in the planning process, which will help to ensure that whatever plan is adopted, doesn’t further or deepen the social inequalities that already exist. On the contrary, involving the community in the planning process, which the co-city method requires and facilitates, is focused on helping the various stakeholders involved in the revitalization effort to lessen the existing inequalities and to enhance the participation of underrepresented social groups. By focusing on prototyping a neighborhood scale co-governance project, such as a Neighborhood Improvement District or a Community Land Bank, the Co-City methodology will, it is hoped, ensure that the project outcome is clearly centered on the inhabitants of the district, the various stakeholders and their varying needs.
The Co-City approach, which has been applied in a variety of cities throughout the world, including Amsterdam, Bologna, Turin, New York, Sao Paolo, and San Jose, is based on a flexible but structured open source methodology, which centers on the “Co- City cycle.” This cycle is intended to create an environment conducive for participants and stakeholders to arrive at locally adaptive, experimental and co-produced institutions, policies or practices.
The first phase of the cycle, Cheap Talk, involves face-to-face, informal and pressures- free communication among key local actors (experts, practitioners, activists, residents) to activate the community of stakeholders that will be involved in the collaborative project. These discussions or sessions are organized in informal settings with significant outreach done in the local community, often through anchor organizations.
The second phase, Mapping, involves understanding the characteristics of the urban or neighborhood context through surveys and exploratory interviews, fieldwork activities, and ethnographic work. The goal in this phase to select an area of focus and begin to design and prototype the kinds of tools and processes necessary for the experimentation or collaborative project. This phase it is sometimes necessary to create a digital platform as a tool for disseminating information and engaging various communities and stakeholders.
The third phase, Practicing, is designed to identify and create possible synergies and alignment between projects and relevant actors. At heart of this phase are co-working sessions with identified actors who are willing to participate in putting ideas into practice. This phase might culminate in a collaboration day or collaboration camp that takes the form of placemaking events—i.e., micro-regeneration interventions using vacant or available land or structure such as the creation of a neighborhood community garden, for example— to prepare the actions for start of the co-design process.
In the next phase, Prototyping, participants and policymakers (local officials) reflect on the mapping and practicing phases and begin to extract the specific characteristics and needs of the community that will be served. It is in this phase that the specific policy, legal, or institutional mechanism is co-designed to solve the issues and problems identified in the previous phases.
In the Testing phase, the prototype is tested and evaluated through implementation, monitoring, and assessment. Both qualitative and quantitative metrics are employed to assess whether implementation is consistent with the design principles, objectives and outcomes identified in earlier stages. This phase is often performed working with one or more knowledge/academic partners to design appropriate indicators and metrics to capture the desired outcomes and impacts from the project.
The final phase, Modeling, focuses on adapting and tailoring the prototype and nesting it within the legal and institutional framework of the city or local government. This phase is realized through the study of relevant legal laws, regulations and administrative acts and through dialogue with civil servants and policy makers. This is an experimental phase involving perhaps the suspension of previous regulatory rules, the altering of bureaucratic processes, and the drafting of new policies which might also have a sunset clause and then a re-evaluation period. It can also involve the establishment of external or internal offices or support infrastructure in the city to support the new policies.
The Co-City methodology, and specifically the cycle described above, will be adapted to the particular features and circumstances of the Plank Road project. In order for the project to be successful, it will be essential for the team organized by LabGov/Marron Institute to build trust and confidence within the Baton Rouge community generally and the Plank Road community specifically. As such, this phase of the project will largely be devoted to creating feedback mechanisms and assurances among the community that we are attempting to facilitate development in accordance with their specific desires and needs, and not to impose “solutions” on them. Implementation of the co-city methodology in Baton Rouge is expected to begin in the fall of 2019, be carried out by a combined task force jointly appointed by LabGov and the Marron Institute, and take approximately three years to complete.
On October 5-6, 2018, scholars and practitioners from around the globe involved in cutting-edge research and projects were invited to participate in an unprecedented celebration of Commons Scholarship at Georgetown’s Law Center in Washington DC. This two-day event was organized by LabGov co-founder Sheila Foster (Professor, Georgetown Law Center/ McCourt School), Brigham Daniels (Professor, BYU Law), and Chrystie Flournoy Swiney (JD/ PhD (ABD))- with the support of the International Association for the Study of the Commons. The conference coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 article on “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which spawned a body of eclectic scholarship, largely spearheaded by Nobel Prize Award winner and political economist Elinor Ostrom who challenged Hardin’s claim that shared resources must be privatized or heavily regulated by governmental actors in order to prevent their depletion or decay.
In the 21st century, the concept of the “commons” has been expanded and reconceptualized in a variety of creative new ways to include many kinds of shared resources, beyond just pastoral land, which was the focus of Hardin’s article. Agriculture, water sources, the global atmosphere, urban infrastructure, technology, and knowledge sharing are just of few of the many examples. Commons scholarship today focuses less on the tragedies that result from shared resources and more on the successful and alternative ways in which resource users, and others, come together to collaboratively govern and maintain a shared resource. As a result, a myriad of seemingly unrelated themes were explored at Georgetown’s “Celebrating Commons Scholarship” conference — economic inequality, stewardship, housing, development and gentrification, and the environment, among others—yet, all were explored through the lens of commons theory.
This vibrant conference included nearly 80 participants from more than 20 different nations presenting papers on a wide variety of interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary topics. Case studies were presented from Barbados, Brazil, Indonesia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Italy, Poland, Israel, Hawaii, and beyond, and topics ranged from “Indigenous Perspectives in the Commons,” to “Reconceiving the Commons,” to “The New Commons: Outer Space, Cyberspace, and Beyond.” Various other panelists applied the Commons Framework to water, cities, the environment, technology, biodiversity, and the media. The opening plenary featured three leading commons scholars–Professors Foster, Daniels, and Shi-Ling Hsu (Florida State University College of Law)–who each discussed recent innovations in commons theory.
Professor Foster described how she is applying the theory of the commons to her work on cities, a new area of commons research which she has further developed with LabGov co-founder Christian Iaione. “I argued in my early work that the same tragic tale can be told about cities, and different kinds of resources in cities,” she said. “Urban streets, parks, vacant land can mimic the tragedy of the commons that result from the self-interested actions of others…cities and their resources can become heavily congested, and resources strained and eventually diminished.” Yet, if there’s a “tragedy of the commons” underway in urban contexts, Foster points out, there are also examples of “comedies,” where adding more people to resources results in more positive outcomes. “We share, with recent work on the commons in the urban environment, a desire to push back on the standard understanding of the commons as a need to avert the tragedy…in a desire to identify alternative economic visions that have the potential to address historic levels of inequality and stratification, particularly in cities.” However, there are problems with importing the theory of the commons into cities, Professor Foster notes: “To state the obvious, many kinds of urban resources, the infrastructure of the built environment, are quite different from traditional commons resources” such as depletable resources like forests and lakes. Cities are heavily regulated, involve many private actors, and raise issues of distribution and inequality not seen elsewhere in such extreme degrees.
Adding to the richness and diversity of this conference was a “Practitioner’s Workshop” offered on the second day, led by Amanda Huron, a professor at The University of the District of Columbia and author of Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C., and Paula Segal, a Senior Staff Attorney at the Community Development Project. This workshop specifically focused on Community Land Trusts (CLTs), a legal tool increasingly used as a way to solve the affordable housing crisis in cities throughout the globe. Following three presentations by practitioners working on CLTs in New York City, Baltimore, and Rio de Janeiro, an interactive, hands-on CLT governance exercise was conducted involving participants in the creation and discussion of the various ways in which CLTs can be governed and structured.
This conference was meant to be a launching pad for future research and collaboration among commons scholars and practitioners. Foster and Swiney, both at Georgetown, hope to cultivate a space for future collaborative efforts throughLabGov Georgetown, which was launched in the fall of 2018 and hopes to be a place where innovative new scholarship on the commons can be featured and further celebrated.
by Chrystie Flournoy Swiney & Sheila Foster, Georgetown Law Center