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Pathways to Divergent Tech: Introducing the 2023 Digital Infrastructure Incubator Cohort

On March 6th, 2023, the Digital Infrastructure Incubator (DII) practice tank and program launched its second cohort. The program aims to explore “divergent tech” and I, Miliaku Nwabueze, have been recently hired as a Senior Program Manager at Code for Science & Society to lead the DII program with support from Dr. Angela Okune and Dr. Rayya El Zein. My working background spans financial technology services, advertising, strategic design & management, building out the solidarity economy, and working with cooperatives and non-electoral grassroots organizing efforts. I have dedicated much of the past decade to studying human social configurations and the social, digital, and spatial technologies that shape, hold, break, and reinforce them. As someone who’s worked extensively on collaboration, I’ve come to realize that we design and make what we are. Scholars such as Ruha Benjamin and Safiya Umoja have been steering the tech industry towards the same conclusion.

I’ve witnessed how traditional working spaces with traditional roles fail to create the worlds we aspire to live in. However, this does not mean these spaces cannot support the exploratory work we do next to and outside of them. This belief guides my practice, directs how I aim to contribute to CS&S’s global impact in the open source software and science space, and informs my thinking about how the DII program can fill the need to create spaces for divergent tech.

The Program

In line with our strategic shifting, the 2023 program sets itself apart from its predecessor by placing an emphasis on relationships and therefore roles. In convening groups seeking to understand community power, we as the conveners have an opportunity to ask questions about how these teams work. Below are our main lines of inquiry:

  1. To what extent do the cultural and social dynamics of a team show up in what they make?

  2. What cooperative relational infrastructures and roles emerge across different cultural contexts in the pursuit of building open technology?

We are collaborating with the following projects as the Digital Infrastructure Incubator’s 2023 Cohort:

Open Agroecology Lab

Nano Castro and team propose to integrate several low-cost and open source methods and instruments into a lab to accompany peasants, farmers, students and researchers in the visualization and documentation of changes produced in farms during their transition towards agroecology.

Internet of Production Alliance

Sarah Hutton, Max Wardeh, and Barbara Schack enable a global alliance of people and organizations who believe in a future of production defined by decentralized manufacturing and shared knowledge. They are building a foundation to enable this future, a world where people can quickly create and fabricate products made from a combination of locally sourced materials and globally sourced designs.

Open Digital Infrastructures for the Care of the Living Memory

Juan Ramos, Carlos Barreneche, and Offray Luna are exploring how the co-design and appropriation of open digital infrastructures favor the community care of living memory. In this work they seek to bridge the gap between indigenous forms of design and cosmology with modern design epistemology.

Open Restitution Africa

Molemo Moiloa and Chao Tayiana Maina lead the Open Restitution Project, an Africa-led project seeking to open up access to information on the restitution of African material culture and human ancestors, to empower all stakeholders involved to make knowledge-based decisions.

Over the next 8 months, we will be proposing and practicing ideas related to community stewardship, co-ownership, co-design, and other paradigms that center sharing and/or transferring power to relevant communities. We do this through a workshop-based curriculum on visioning, execution, and reflexivity with a complementary speaker series. The structure supports three co-design projects with external communities. We are fortunate to collaborate with experienced mentors who bring insights from permaculture, activism, relationship building, design, and technology. These mentors will work with the cohort teams to further refine and implement their project visions.

Our Support Network

While it may be risky for capital to follow the unconventional and unfamiliar, if we follow the same routes, we cannot reach different destinations. Therefore, it is essential to invest resources into discovering divergent ways of building digitally. CS&S is thrilled to be partnering with the Ford Foundation and Omidyar Network, funders who share our vision for exploration and discovery. Together, we refuse to be satisfied with mere declarations of intent and instead strive to embody our values through experimentation. By fusing the focus on physical relationship building with digital projects, we are re-examining what community engagement, co-design, collaboration, and accountability look like as divergent tech praxis.

What is divergent tech?

It’s worth specifying what I mean by “divergent tech” and what it is diverging from. Traditional tech and even “tech for good” or tech advocacy spaces orient themselves towards an objective solution-finding and problem solving which results in software development processes that prioritize “sticky” user experiences and funding that follows the next big thing. Standardized pathways, frameworks, or toolkits are established as the “right” way to design and build digital experiences. We become limited in our ability to explore disruptive ways of leveraging technology for social transformation.

We use the term “divergent tech” as a descriptive term to relay what we hope tech under alternative, more liberatory logics proposed by scholars like Benjamin and Umoja as well as open source tech practitioners and activists might look like. I hope the design and execution of the DII program contributes to the carving out and expansion of divergent efforts by bridging the gap between research and practice and verbal commitments and material reality. As the new Senior Program Manager for CS&S, I am thrilled to be part of the DII program, and I look forward to collaborating with all of you to experiment on divergent tech for divergent futures.

Photo Courtesy of @weandthecolor