r0g_agency is a Berlin-based collaborative enterprise for open culture and critical transformation initiated in 2012 and founded as a non-profit company in September 2013 by Stephen Kovats and Susanne Bellinghausen, along with a small group of open culture specialists active in locations worldwide.
The free culture, open technologies and hacktivist-induced projects r0g_ embarks on are dedicated to a more radical thinking, non-conventional, innovative and creatively irreverent way of approaching complex problem solving … a group of rogue systems mavericks working with the means of open source cultures and technologies in securing equally open, sustainable, autonomous and collaborative societies.
Transposing a wide spectrum of past media culture, art and urbanist professional experience as a Bauhaus Dessau studio head, international programmes curator at V2_Institute for Unstable Media in Rotterdam (http://v2.nl/) and artistic director at festival transmediale in Berlin (http://transmediale.de/), Stephen Kovats is now focussing his work on creating sustainable open systems solutions for crisis, post-conflict and societal transformation scenarios.
Open Source (i.e. FOSS and Open Hardware), Open Educational Resources (OER), Open Data and related Open ICT4D, DIY and Up-Cycling methodologies, are some of the keywords upon with which r0g_agency bases its direction. Not abstract concepts and/or theories for the academic world or start-up ventures, but rather taking action with concrete solutions for Social Innovation to support community development and the empowerment of people marginalized by conflict are among the agencies primary goals.
On Thursday January 22, 2015, r0g_agency for open culture gGmbH in collaboration with Digital Unite e.V. and the Centre for Internet & Human Rights at European University Viadrina (CIHR) (https://cihr.eu/) present Doing Development Differently – OPENing up Cooperation, or #DoDevDif. This event, hosted by the Embassy of Canada in Berlin and supported by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH (http://www.giz.de/de/html/index.html) is aimed at strengthening and better defining the notion of “Open Development”. More infos here: http://r0g-media.org/dodevdif
Marco Mancuso: Hello Stephen. First of all, could you to give me a general description of r0g_agency and its activities?
Stephen Kovats: The “r0g_agency for open culture and critical transformation”, as is the agency’s full title, is a German based, internationally active non-profit company. We focus on applying the power and resources of open models, such as open source tools and platforms, as well as open knowledge repositories to foster new forms of innovation, using these to support peace-building and sustainable development in crisis, transformation and post-conflict regions. We were incorporated late 2013, so we have been working on developing our methodologies and forms of (inter)action. At first this has been primarily through workshops, seminars and collaborations on programme development with on-the-ground implementing organizations. We also support grass-roots, or home grown initiatives in these regions that apply open culture ideas and methodologies to advance the development of free and open societies.
One such group is, for example, the Kapital Movie collective in South Sudan which was formed by a group of medical students to learn video and media production in order to advocate for health, social, education and violence mitigation issues amongst youth in that country. With virtually no proper external resources, they have set up an independent media academy – the Kapital Virtual Academy, or KVA (http://www.kapitalmovie.net/kva.html) – as a means of training and passing on their own knowledge in media development issues. Although they use primarily cracked and “found” proprietary software for their work, they are interested in learning, using and promoting FOSS in media training as an effective and more sustainable form of media development practice.
Marco Mancuso: We talked about your idea to launch an agency like r0g_ at transmediale 2012, I remember. Why did you decide to start such a project? And in which way is r0g_ the result of your past professional experiences at V2_ and transmediale, eventually?
Stephen Kovats: After working for over 20 years in the realm of digital arts, coming at these from a social activist and “societal transformation” point of view, I wanted to re-orient the way I work and interact with communities in a more hands-on and direct way. It’s not only my professional experience through V2_Institute and transmediale that has informed this direction, but also my earlier work in the 90’s in Eastern and Central Europe on this issue, as well as my work in Ethiopia before joining V2_. A lot of this work had to do with architecture and urbanism, and their impact on society from a grass-roots, community interactive perspective … we could say (although the term was not yet being used) an “open urbanist” approach.
The groups, artists and communities which I was also most interested in working with at both V2_ and transmediale were the more activist, socially engaged innovators, who made us think about process and our relationships to technology on a number of levels. So one point of departure was my interest and desire in linking a number of these methodologies in specific development contexts – also to look at how artistic and cultural strategies can provide a different, perhaps in some cases more effective, form of problem solving for complex challenges, like those associated with post-conflict development.
We therefore chose to adopt the “r0g_” tag as our “indicator” in reference to the English word “rogue”. Taken in its original meaning, r0g_ is that of an agent acting or working outside the usual or given realms of activity on alternative, innovative solutions, then re-entering the frame of reference to apply or implement the specific developed scenario … a renegade or maverick form of development activity that calls on new or alternative forms of solution to complex challenges. This is a form of thinking and conceptual development very close to the heart of organizations such as V2_ and we want to take this way of working into more uncomfortable and perhaps uncharted territory using the vehicle of open culture and open methodologies.
Marco Mancuso: r0g_agency applies the key concepts of international open culture directly to the pure social impact these methodologies can have. It seems your idea concerns the possibility to work on a wide range of similar strategies, for example Open Softwares & Hardwares used for networked practices for education and culture, p2p policies for Open Governments and Open Data systems, DIY attitudes for recycling and Open Design, Open Source systems for sharing economies and so on. How much do you believe in such a system, even for the next generations?
Stephen Kovats: Well, I believe the open source model, which was the key innovating factor for the early web and internet, is now finally re-emerging after society at large has become better acquainted with technology and has begun a much more intimate interaction with it. Taking command of this technology is an important force of independence as well as of creative potential. Besides understanding these systems more clearly – perhaps in the light of recent data, security and privacy scandals – we now also have better developed tools, stronger communities and means to share, collaborate on and create innovation, also as economic models, than we may have had five or ten years ago.
Marco Mancuso: How artists, designers and professionals from the media culture and art world can be strategic for your agency?
Stephen Kovats: As I pointed out above, these communities often have different or alternative ways of seeing and doing things which can be of great value in re-considering solutions to problems where other more “conventional” methodologies may have failed. I’m not saying that we should, or need, to co-opt the arts for the sake of social innovation – we need these communities to remain strong, independent, critical and poetically use-less – but we can look at the strategies and at the modus operandi employed by artists and other cultural actors to see how these can be applied in areas where they may not have been considered. Often the arts have been well ahead of commercial and other technical developments that have followed later with great impact on society.
Marco Mancuso: It’s true r0g_agency works with post-conflict areas of the world where open systems can be a solution for wider problems, but why have you chosen to work with such areas of the world and to focus on the devastations caused by conflicts and wars? Which can be the starting point for any possible sustainable hybrid form of cultural innovation in such areas?
Stephen Kovats: Open systems solutions should be used in all forms of problem solving, development, innovation etc., wherever. In the realm of international development, especially in post-conflict situations, the use or knowledge of open resources is either extremely limited or often completely unknown. However this is an area where the potentials of open tools, solutions, resources and methodologies, given their inherent traits of sustainability, collaborative enterprise, implementation rapidity and empowerment are perhaps their greatest.
Either way, in the year 2015, it is unthinkable, we believe, that if one is working in a “development context’” that the opportunities presented for example by Open Educational Resources (OERs), FOSS and other open source structures, or infrastructural considerations such as community based wireless mesh networks would not be considered. We believe that such resources and systems can have their greatest impact where the challenge is the greatest, and these areas – among others of course – certainly are post-conflict or crisis regions. The UN also has an acronym for this: PCPD, or Post-Conflict / Post-Disaster (where the former is principally man-made, the latter principally natural).
Marco Mancuso: You define r0g_agency as a connector, an initiator being part of a wider network of partners and organizations. How does a real form of networking, of grass-root social hacktivism, make up your projects, seminars and conferences?
Stephen Kovats: It’s quite central to the way we exist and act, at least in this phase of our own development. We are a small team doing other forms of work, intersecting on the projects and initiatives being developed. In any case, we see the work of r0g_agency in bringing together different forms of communities, skills, cultural contexts etc. in order to achieve the goals set out. Such methodologies, like those of effective networking or hacktivism play key conceptual roles in the work, but for reasons of communication or context they are maybe not always called so. We talk about and define what we mean by hacktivism, but then we look at re-appropriation of technology, up-cycling, or DIY strategies to specifically illustrate why we feel these are valid strategies, for example in skills training and capacity building.
Marco Mancuso: How do you all work together on specific programs and which are the skills (social, economical, technical) you share?
Stephen Kovats: We are still in an early stage of work, but the team coming together for the agency have a broad spectrum of skills ranging from design, conflict mitigation, open source technologies, political science, cultural activism and so on. We are for a large part in separate locations, collaborating online and meeting at opportune intersections of time and space.
Marco Mancuso: I would like to go deep down to the projects developed by you with r0g_. Could you tell us about the #OS SOUTH SUDAN project, the #OSJUBA project, the #OSWARRAP and the #OSBACK? I know there are some others also in Indonesia, Mali and the Republic of Kosovo. Would you like to tell us more about them?
Stephen Kovats: Effectively the #OS-South Sudan initiative is the umbrella for a number of “Open Systems” initiatives in and about South Sudan, all of which began with #OSJUBA, or “Open Systems Juba” (Juba, being the capital of South Sudan). #OSWARRAP is an ongoing initiative aimed at developing an “Open Systems Strategy for Peace and Development” in the state of Warrap, and #OSBACK is a proposal to create an Open Source Server Backbone for the country.
Initially #OSJUBA was a question as to the role that open source / FOSS plays in post-conflict international development, and we looked at Juba, South Sudan as a case in point for the challenges that a newly independent country faces. South Sudan became the 193rd member of the UN in July 2011 after decades of brutal civil war that, among many problems, prevented any stable form of development to take place. Schools, infrastructure, health system, administrations etc., a capital city, more than any other urban type, incorporates all the framework functions of the state. We were interested in discussing how the open source model could be applied to the challenges that this rapid development implies. In December 2012, in collaboration with organizations such as MICT (Media in Cooperation and Transition, Berlin), UNICEF South Sudan and AMDISS, the Association for Media Development in South Sudan, we held MEDIA & MAKERS JUBA, the first ever conference in South Sudan focussing exclusively on Open Knowledge and Sustainable Media. This then led to a number of initiatives that we developed together with local civil society organizations as well as governments, including that of Warrap State.
Through these collaborations we’ve also had the opportunity to host some of our partners in Europe, including the Governor of Warrap State, who was our key speaker at the UNESCO WSIS review conference in Paris, or the medical student and film maker Lagu Stephen Samuel whom we have been supporting in his development of South Sudan’s first independent media academy – one which he hopes to base entirely on Open Source media production tools and software. However, in December 2013 a conflict broke out amongst the country’s fractured political leadership which has effectively destroyed the dreams and hopes that the road to independence had brought the country. With that, our own activities have swung to more urgent humanitarian and crisis mitigation efforts.
We have launched two initiatives which we are currently looking for funding for – #OSIDP the Humanitarian Open Media Repository and the #DefyHateNow Initiative against online hate speech and directed social media incitement to violence. Both of these are aimed at active peace-building and inter-communal dialogue, where not only the direct victims of the violence, internally displaced and other in-country citizens are the focus, but also the South Sudanese diaspora living around the globe who in many cases are an equal party to the conflict via their online and mobile telecommunications activity.
While our primary focus is on creating open systems as models for sustainable development in South Sudan, we are also working on similar initiatives in Mali (#OSMaLibre), as well as in Kosovo where we are helping develop an Open Cultures Resource Centre. In Indonesia in collaboration with the HONF Foundation (http://www.natural-fiber.com/) we co-produced the [proto:type] Yogyakarta Meeting on Open Culture and Critical Making, a precursor event to what hopefully will be the International Summit of Critical and Transformative Making Indonesia.