Institutional Blockade

Placeholder to develop the position of 3TS with existing and inadequate institutional frameworks that miss long-term productivity and public welfare for short-sightedness.

The Muriqui project engages citizens in their territory by using a game to the service of the transformation of degraded landscapes into permaculture forests. Such a development involves a direct relation with the diversity of practices of the different citizen groups already engaged in maintaining or creating city landscapes, gardens, permaculture, plant pots, etc., in many different contexts and territories.

This project is the occasion to think through the appropriation of a singular technology as a necessary condition of its existence in public space, and the reason of its funding by public budgets.

what I would like to raise as a component of ‘institutional blockade’ is ‘private capture’ i.e. how common goods and services that are either freely available or allocated through local negotiated rules or through public services, are gradually co-opted into the private sphere.

In the particular case of the MURIqui proposal, there was a strong incentive by institutional research administrators to find private enterprise partnerships, in the form of software companies, that would provide the ICT tools underpinning citizen engagement.

Pressures to do so came from several directions.

The first was from the actual funding body – the European Commission. With its increasingly narrow drive for promoting innovative enterprise, market solutions and economic growth, there were strong hints at the need for including private enterprise within funding proposals as this would suggest a direct route to the marketisation of project outputs, and thus contribute to the holy grail of policymakers and politicians: GDP growth. Yet, in our attempts of finding private partnerships for the MURIqui project, we encountered ‘scams’ - where supposedly highly successful private enterprises were almost completely dependent on a continuous supply of European Commission funding, with limited prospects of ever producing a useful and marketable product.

There were also internal pressures to engage with private enterprise, as these have hierarchical decision-making structures and slick administrative procedures. The more consensual and deliberative approaches of informal civic society groupings made it very difficult for us to engage with these partners within the very tight timescales from the issuing of funding calls to proposal submission. Private enterprise instead had the resources to engage highly qualified individuals to spend significant amounts of their time engaging with highly technical and tedious proposals.

And to be honest, even academic institutions are increasingly pressurised to transform themselves from providers of public services (education and research) to servants of corporations. With the gradual withdrawal of public funding for institutions of higher education, we ourselves are becoming mirror images of corporations: forced to write proposals not because these will expand knowledge and/or build capacity, but purely because we need to achieve income targets for our institutions.

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one specific issue that came up within the development of the MURIqui proposal was intellectual property rights, with significant tensions between private institutions insisting on maintaining rights on project outputs, on the one side, and on the other side (civic) organisations championing open knowledge and open source

There’s a lot to reply to and to expand, so I will try to break it down a bit…

Private Capture

The economic filter by which institutions measure all the things assumes a key role for private enterprise. This comes from a blind faith in the self-regulation of the market, despite all facts disproving this wrong assumption. Within this framework, no difference is made between large corporations and small businesses. All economic indicators are measured against large industries and aggregate values from the trade economy, leaving out any social value, including the cooperative and associative sectors. Growth Domestic Product (GDP) for example measures what is bought by the consumer, leaving non-mercantile value completely out of consideration. In a GDP-driven economy, it is more valuable to build new housing than to use the existing ones that are empty; it is more valuable to turn an urban wasteland where social activity and wildlife thrive into a mall, than to leave it to plants to produce oxygen, and to people to produce social well-being; it is more valuable to crash a car and buy a new one than to maintain it, etc.

Yet, as the hegemony of this ‘economic’ approach of the trade economy extends to institutional funding, its flattening world view imposes an inadequate filter that leaves out solutions independent of the trade economy. Cooperation between citizens and non-mercantile social activity, e.g., producing food in community gardens and common goods outside of the trade economy actually compete with the private sector: home cooking kills restauration. From a GDP perspective, a sane society deprives the private sector from growing.

EU Funding and the Mirage of Growth

We approached an EU Commissioner to develop these contradictions and introduce the value of free software and cooperative production of free technologies for the public sector. He described a recurring problem with EU funding and software confirming this ‘scam’ that leads to grotesque situations: private software companies receive public funding to produce proprietary software that stop being produced and developed further as soon as EU funding dries up. The EU then is left with software that cannot be reused and cannot be passed on to the next operator in a project, and a net loss of their investment.

As promoters of open-access knowledge and the idea that public funding must produce free software, we were characterized as lobbyists, although we’re not pushing private interests! This lack of discernment between scales, means, and purposes makes it almost impossible to address the institutions in a pertinent way to solve the problem of private capture of public funding and the social value of publicly-funded projects.

Corporations vs. Research

The hegemony of capitalism leads to a denial of the existence of institutional arrangements outside of utilitarianism and the trade economy. Often, researchers are asked to justify their research as if they were aware of the results before they even started. In the business world, “selling the dream” is common practice, and delivery under expectations follows. When corporations take over public funding of research, obviously, they will put their Return On Investment (ROI) in the balance, and push towards utilitarian expectations of profit. With ROI on the horizon, research drifts downslope towards crystal ball reading and a monsters show.

When funding institutions require researchers to describe the social value of the output their research, what they mean indeed is whether this research will enable market growth, employment creation, etc. But when research is submitted to know in advance what it will produce, it is not research anymore.

Intellectual Production Racket

Data Gueule #63 explores the vicious circle of scientific publications, where scientists publish their findings gratis, to gain notoriety and visibility, necessary to get more funding, or simply to maintain existing funding. This racket organized by private publishers like Elsevier extends to so-called “Intellectual Property Rights” (IPR): the license “allows” readers to quote scientific papers up to 200 characters, just a bit more than a tweet. Of course you can choose to publish in open-access, for a fee that can go up to $5,000 per article.

French scientist Marin Darcos estimates that 90% of publicly funded research does not come back to the public. How scientific publishers managed to turn the normal process of peer review in science into a highly profitable walled garden reflects the banalization of the primacy of the trade economy beyond Economics, as a default filter applied to all institutional reading grids.

Institutional blockade also manifests in the requirements for obtaining funding: “social value”, institutional forms, preliminary access to market and funding capacity, specialized tasks and positions, and accountable production plans. All these are usually not available to researchers nor to small networks that are often divergent, exploratory, involving multiple skills from a variety of disciplines, unless they can count among them on someone who has the skills, inclination, time, and capacity to afford writing the grant proposals.

It is great loss that is due to the ideological belief in market autoregulation, even Institutions are now considered to be part of the market, they then become caught in a dilemma making critic impossible. The “Institutional Blockade” exits any process that would question or condition the use of public money for private interests, therefore to keep the system running institutions need to bind their interests with already financed projects that they are now depending on.

This is quite representative of the status civil society is given in our institutions, as the space for representation is not existing, citizen led and activists are considered on the same ground as multinationals. Some programs are starting to see the benefit of including citizens, but they still will need to prove their utility to the freemarket, as public funding considers the preservation of the system as a priority over taking public benefit as the primary obligation of public funding

Not only activists, that would put us in an adversarial position, but also actors from the private sector: small businesses, cooperatives, non-profit associations, and informal citizen groups. The scale is important, and the asymmetry between the mammoth scale of funding of EU institutions and the lilliputian scale of local initiatives put the latter in the shadow of the former, way under the radar of the funders.

A parallel can be made with investment in corporate agro-chemistry and the actual value of family farming, including the prevalent role of women in the global food production, as illustrated in this poster in display at the Jagori Institute in Rakkar: (give credit where credit is due, women produce 60% of the food produced globally)

Yes civil society, this is an conglomerate difficult to characterize that we address here, singular technologies as bridge between a diversity of human activities and a needed technopolitical infrastructure. In order for them to happen we need to change lenses and look at the situation using different epistemologies as many knowledges are unreported and unused in the current institutions; “on the other sides, knowledges that have become immeasureable and incomprehensible because of their inability to fit the scientific methodology or its knowns rivals in the domains of philosophy or theology” Boaventura De Sousa Santos, Epistemologies of the South : Justice Against Epistemicide, Taylor & Francis Ltd, London 2014

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it’s actually worse than that. GDP grows when your house is burgled and you have to replace all your stolen goods. GDP grows when you become depressed, ill and/or disabled by environmental destruction and pollutants and are forced to spend the rest of your life paying for drugs in order to enable you to function and to work. GDP grows when you are encouraged to buy more food than you need, over-eat, and then throw 30% of it in the waste bin. All this is ‘good for the economy’.

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We’re discussing mentioning institutional blockade in our upcoming lecture at AMRO22, as part of the “debugging” of institutional failure: where we fail because our place of action is conditioned by institutions, and therefore we cannot meet the ends of our desire within the institutional process.