Hopeful Hybrids: the idea of Social Innovation Assemblages

by Dan McQuillan


In Critical Hacktivism[1] I outlined an approach to the affordances of social technology that evades capture by existing institutional and knowledge structures. In this post I'll look at the next challenge; how can these social innovations scale in a way that is 'prototyping a new society in the shell of the old' without becoming completely assimilated by existing institutions.

Most of the systems that we inhabit are 'striated' (marked by linear boundaries, restricted to a particular plane of activity in the space of all possible potentials) and this inevitably acts to control and capture. Our experience with Social Innovation Camp[2] is that projects coming out of the camps are are too small and too different for a system to acknowledge (whether that system is a host organisation or the wider political economy around a social issue). Or, if they are recognised, the reaction is just as likely to be hostility as support[3]. Similarly a project like Apps for Good[4], channeling pure Paulo Freire through the affordances of the Android operating system, finds itself pushed away from disaffected youth and in to schools[5] by the fear-based benefits system and the myopic and self-interested voluntary sector. How can we scale our critical hacks without becoming the same as that which went before? When Richard Day warns against 'the hegemony of hegemony'[6] he's highlighting the poverty of our ideas about how to be influential in the world. I'm proposing a line of flight based on 'hopeful hybrids'; hybrid combinations of social startups and existing entities based on the idea of assemblages.

On one level, an assemblage is simply a heterogeneous complex system – it could be made up of objects, people, organisations and biological components. As a philosohphical idea from Deleuze & Guattari, and developed by de Landa, it takes on some characteristics that make it a good fit for social prototyping, a way of hacking the system while 'keeping the power on' (to borrow a phrase from Abstract Hacktivism[7]. On of the useful distinctions made by assemblage theory is the distinction between the properties and capacities of an entity. “We may have exhaustive knowledge about an individual’s properties and yet, not having observed it in interaction with other individuals, know nothing about its capacities”[8]. When these elements come together in an assemblage new capacities emerge, that become characteristic of the emergent whole. The assemblage is not reducible to its parts.

Working with an ontology of assemblages lets us think our way past the potential choke points, whether technical, organisational or social. It allows us to look at an set of elements to hand and think “how can we reassemble this?” What's more, it is impossible to predict a priori what will emerge with from a particular assemblage until we try. For these reasons it is a useful way to look at the practice of critical hacktivism, an active reassembling that draws on the unexpected affordances of technology for constructing socio-technical structures. I'm going to illustrate this with a real world example that traces a path of emergence between the Katrina hurricane and the earthquake in Haiti.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of people and many online survivor registries appeared where people could report missing relatives or check for family and friends. One of the responses was an early effort in volunteer hacking and crowdsourcing which became known as the Katrina PeopleFinder Project.  One of the participants, Ethan Zuckerman, gives a riveting first-hand account[9] of the way the project emerged as “geeks start screen scraping databases and bulletin boards with information about hurricane survivors” while volunteers work on manual entry of data from unstructured sources like discussion forums and blog comments. The #globalvoices channel on irc.freenode.net becomes a key point of coordination for the project (Ethan is also a co-founder of Global Voices) as the coalition finds ways to route around problems. “We rapidly figure out that assigning people a page of bulletin board results isn’t going to work, as the posts on each page change as new posts are added to the system. A pair of Craigslist geeks solve the problem on their site, by creating HTML pages with the contents of 25 Craigslist posts on each page – they place them on a constant URL so we can index the pages easily for the wiki. Nate Kurz comes up with a clever hack to index posts on bulletin boards that use sequential post IDs. I write an ugly perl script using his hack to generate assignment pages that have links to bulletin board posts.”

One of the key early steps was the creation of the People Finder Interchange Format (PFIF)[10], a data model and an XML-based exchange format for information about missing or displaced people. Using this open standard for storing both person records (identifying information about a person) and note records (comments and updates on the status and location of a person) enables survivor registries to aggregate and share information with each other via automated means. One of the creators, Kieran Lal, wrote a personal account of the creation of PFIF[11] showing how individual efforts weaved together projects like CiviCRM and companies like Salesforce. At the time of Katrina, however, incumbent NGOs like the Red Cross did not participate in these efforts.

In the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) we can identify some of the structural roots of striation that act to close down innovation. The mission of their Central Tracing Agency is 'reuniting families separated by conflict and disasters'[12] and goes back to 1870 when it was able to use prisoner lists from the German forces to inform French families about the fate of those missing in action. Critically, this role has become established in international humanitarian law[13], an authority which is maintained by the ICRC itself since “the ICRC, being the initiator and the guardian of international humanitarian law, is responsible for its development”. Embedded in international humanitarian law and percolated through the operating culture of a historical institution - the perceived 'ownership' of a social issue doesn't get deeper than this.

The period between Katrina in 2005 and Haiti in 2010 saw the growth of civic and crisis hacktivism, ranging from MySociety and Social Innovation Camp to software platforms like Ushahidi and establishment of the Crisis Camp movement. “CrisisCamp began in March 2009 as a barcamp event to connect crisis management and global development practitioners to the technology volunteer community. During the Haiti response, CrisisCamp became a movement and added a response mechanism to the community.”[14]. The self-organised crisis camp community played a role in passing hacktivist learning from People Finder to the Haiti response. According to the After Action Review on CrisisCommons, the CrisisCamp volunteers become concerned about the fact that there were at least 46 missing persons systems available by the first weekend of the crisis. 

" 'I was involved after the first day or so, participating in a discussion forum run by volunteers from CrisisCommons and Random Hacks of Kindness,' said Andy Carvin, social media strategist for NPR, in an e-mail interview. 'Though I'm not a techie and can't really participate in the substance of the tool-building that's taking place, I advocated that we all figure out a way to have these various missing persons lists talk to each other ... So I advocated that they use a format developed after Katrina called the PeopleFinder Interchange Format (PFIF), which was created by volunteers to make it possible to process all of these various missing persons reports into a single format that could be passed along to the Red Cross.' According to his online resume, one of the originators of PFIF, Ka-Ping Yee works in software engineering for Google's philanthropic initiatives, and 'no doubt that influenced how they moved forward' Carvin said. Within 36 hours of the January 2010 Haiti earthquake Google engineers built Person Finder in order to help those affected by the earthquake connect with their loved ones"[15].

From the perspective of hybridity, one of the most interesting projects to emerge from the dust of the Haitian earthquake was Mission 4636, the crowdsourced reporting and processing of crisis-related SMS messages via a local mobile shortcode ('4636'). Although hugely driven by Haitian efforts in the diaspora and on the ground, catalysed by some key tech enablers, the project also gave rise to a proto-assemblage that connected large institutions, grassroots projects and ad-hoc initiatives in a shifting pattern of information exhange and action. The Ushahidi blog was among the first to try to capture this new creature, but the far-from equilibrium nature of the assemblage can be seen from the fact that the diagram underwent major changes between 8th February[16] and 11th February 2010[17]. As the introduction to the second version says:
“Shortly after we posted the original Project 4636 info graphic, a few folks involved in the project got in touch to see if we could clarify the process. There are a lot of moving parts, many of which are constantly changing, and so the original graphic didn’t quite reflect the exact process as well as it could have. With that in mind, we worked with Josh Nesbit of Frontline SMS Medic and Nicolás di Tada of InSTEDD to make sure the graphic reflected the process as accurately as possible”.


One reading of this assemblage is the possibility that incumbent institutions, whose rigid structures also command significant practical resource in terms of people and equipment, can be productively enrolled with grassroots projects and agile initiatives to leverage technologies for a crisis situation, without crushing the necessary speed of innovation under the weight of bureaucratic overcoding. This is also the atmosphere of the 'Geeks for Haiti[18], a crisis camp video showing how technical specialists came together in a hackspace with students and volunteers from the diaspora. It created a 'smooth space' for anyone frustrated about the speed & ambition of institutional responses and the passivity of simply donating money to international NGOs.  “CrisisCampers are not only technical folks like coders, programmers, geospatial and visualization ninjas but we are also filled to the brim with super creative and smart folks who can lead teams, manage projects, share information, search the internet, translate languages, know usability, can write a research paper and can help us edit wikis.”[19]

But a word of warning comes from one of the reports on Mission 4636. Despite positive conclusions about the crowdsourced activity of the Haitian diaspora (“The structured data, now in English, was streamed directly back to the relief efforts in Haiti, with a typical turnaround of just 5 minutes”) the report by one of the key people involved argues that the role of NGOs has been exaggerated. “Previous reports about Mission 4636 have incorrectly credited international organizations with the majority of the work. Only 5% of messages to 4636 went through the software run by international not-for-profits, but reports like the Disaster Relief 2.0 Report inflated this 5% to appear to be the whole effort, sidelining the 95% that was Haitian run.“[20] While there was some genuine operationalisation of a crisis assemblage around Project 4636, it seems that the post-event narrative was captured by the NGOs.

In fact, NGOs and other institutions can themselves be seen as assemblages. The theory makes for a flat ontology, where any level of 'being' or 'structure' can be seen as a combination of elements with particular properties and capacities. In de Landa's version, one dimension through which assemblages can be defined is the synthetic role the assemblage plays , on a spectrum between full territorialisation and full deterritorialisation. '" 'Territorialision is any process that seeks to stabilise the identity of an assemblage, to define physical boundaries, to express codes of appropriate behaviour so as to homogenise other parts...' On the level of social organisation, such territorialising forces include the police and border control, which are largely material assemblages, and on the other hand, policy documents and law archives, which function mainly as expressive assemblages"[21]. Agile inititiaves, on the other hand, are marked by the deterritorialising tendency that characterises critical hacktivism and the ability to innovate through the affordances of technology. There's an activist mandate in these latter assemblages, an urgent experimentalism, as it is only by doing that we can discover the emergent capacities of the parts, and the wholes that they will produce.

It remains to be seen whether the idea of hacktivist assemblages will be useful for social projects. Will hopeful hybrids only emerge in the heat of a humanitarian disaster? Or will the lengthy social crisis create an alembic out of which social innovation assemblages will emerge to tackle homelessness, dwindling pensions and depressing care homes[22]. What kind of structure will amplify the flow between the Good Gym[23], the NHS and local communities? Between EnabledbyDesign[24], the Homecare Industry, Occupational Therapists and disability activists? What assemblages will channel the flow between government, citizens and hacktivist youth projects[25] for the prototyping of a new country like Kosovo[26]? For social assemblages to be innovative they will need to evade the forces of reterritorialisation, perhaps by incorporating elements that bring the the energy and intensity of social movements. "And as with natural dynamical systems, the key ingredient to insuring that assemblages remain ‘interesting’ is the production of intensive differences that are produced through flows of energy through the system. These flows can be analysed for the limits they place on the system and the structures they impose, thus forming an analysis resembling a kind of neo-materialism"[27]. In the next post in this series I'll look at the emerging area of citizen science; how this can be a form of critical hacktivism and be furthered through assemblages. But I'll suggest that, rather than depending on the existing levers of policy change, the impact of citizen science will be stronger if it becomes rooted in the prefigurative politics of social movements like Occupy.

(This is #2 in a series of posts based on my talk at “The Co-Production of Knowledge: Social Media and Science &Technology Studies” at the University of York.)


[1] Critical Hacktivism

[2] Social Innovation Camp

[3]Government is an elephant | Public Strategist. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from http://publicstrategist.com/2010/03/government-is-an-elephant/

[4] Apps for Good

[5]From NEETs to schools: a shift in channels. (n.d.).CDI Europe. Retrieved August 23, 2012, from http://cdieurope.eu/2011/04/18/neets-schools-shift-channels/

[6]Day, R. J. F. (2005). Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. Pluto Press.

[7]Busch, O. V., & Palmas, K. (2006). Abstract Hacktivism: The Making of a Hacker Culture. Mute

Publishing Ltd.

[8]DeLanda, M. (2005). Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy. Continuum.

[9]…My heart’s in Accra?» Recovery 2.0 – thoughts on what worked and failed on PeopleFinder so far. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2005/09/06/recovery-20-thoughts-on-what-worked-and-failed-on-peoplefinder-so-far/

[10]People Finder Interchange Format 1.4. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from http://zesty.ca/pfif/1.4/

[11]A personal history of the effort to find the survivors of Hurricane Katrina | CivicSpace. (n.d.). Retrieved August 24, 2012, from http://web.archive.org/web/20061009120722/http://www.civicspacelabs.org/home/node/14162

[12]Reuniting families separated by conflict and disasters. Retrieved August 23, 2012, from http://www.icrc.org/eng/what-we-do/reuniting-families/overview-reuniting-families.htm

[13]International Humanitarian Law - Fourth 1949 Geneva Convention. Art 26 (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/FULL/380?OpenDocument

[14]About Crisis Commons. (n.d.).CrisisCommons. Retrieved August 23, 2012, from http://crisiscommons.org/about/

[15]CrisisCamp AAR - Project Support - Person FInder - CrisisCommons Wiki. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from http://wiki.crisiscommons.org/wiki/CrisisCamp_AAR_-_Project_Support_-_Person_FInder

[16]Project 4636: An Info Graphic – Ushahidi:: Blog. (2010, February 8). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from http://blog.ushahidi.com/index.php/2010/02/08/project-4636-an-info-graphic/

[17]Project 4636 Revisited: The Updated Info Graphic – Ushahidi?:: Blog. (2010, February 11). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from http://blog.ushahidi.com/index.php/2010/02/11/project-4636-revisited-the-updated-info-graphic/

[18]Geeks for Haiti. (n.d.).Current TV. Retrieved August 27, 2012, from http://current.com/technology/91965297_geeks-for-haiti.htm

[19]About Crisis Commons. (n.d.).CrisisCommons. Retrieved August 23, 2012, from http://crisiscommons.org/about/

[20]Mission 4636?» Mission 4636 Report. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from http://www.mission4636.org/report/

[21]Hodgson, T. (2007). A Social Philosophy of Immanence: Realism, Assemblage Theory and Neo-Materialism.

[22]Social Innovation Camp Meetup - ‘What is the potential for new startups to get involved in Social Care?’ (n.d.).Eventbrite. Retrieved August 23, 2012, from http://sicamp-socialcare.eventbrite.com/

[23]GoodGym | a group of runners that runs to do good (n.d.). Retrieved August 27, 2012, from http://www.goodgym.org/

[24]Enabled by Design | People passionate about Design for All. (n.d.). Retrieved August 27, 2012, from http://enabledbydesign.org/

[25] Kosovo Innovation Camp | Projects. (n.d.).Kosovo Innovation Camp. Retrieved August 27, 2012, from http://kosovoinnovationcamp.wordpress.com/apply/

[26]Prototyping a new Kosovo

[27]Hodgson, T. (2007). A Social Philosophy of Immanence: Realism, Assemblage Theory and Neo-Materialism.