Interview with Mario Ballesteros from Laboratorio para la Ciudad in Mexico City
04 apr 2014 by Ashton Chandler
Ashton Chandler interviews Mario Ballesteros, Director of Strategic Communication and Editorial Projects at Laboratorio para la Ciudad in Mexico City. Mario talks about the Lab, its context and relationship with the city, and its ‘experiments’.
AC: Explain the background behind the Lab, how it works, and the success it has cultivated thus far.
MB: The Laboratorio para la Ciudad, or Lab for the City, is the Mexico City government’s new experimental and creative innovation lab, the first government office of its kind in Latin America. Comprised of a core team of 15 people, plus many other talented and diverse collaborators, both local and from outside of Mexico, the Lab is a unique space to creatively reflect and act on relevant urban issues for the largest megalopolis on the American continent. Directed and designed from scratch by Gabriella Gómez-Mont, the Lab came about through a personal invitation by Mexico City’s mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, to incorporate a very different type of city department into the official government structure. The Lab offers a space for experimenting and taking risks, as well as re-imagining relationships between citizens and government. It brings people together from different sectors and disciplines (artists, scientists, architects, government officials, designers, historians, sociologists, techies, etc) and induces conversations through different platforms, creating pilot programs, promoting urban interventions and other creative initiatives, with the aim of injecting good ideas into the city´s system and bringing back community, creativity and imagination to the center of city discourse.
AC: Can you highlight some of the 'experiments' that take place at the Lab?
MB: Some of our experiments include projects inserted directly into the urban tissue –for example, our "Urban Artifact" which is a temporary, portable, infrastructure that collects citizen perceptions regarding public spaces and sensory inputs directly at street level, as well as hosting participatory design and tactical urbanism workshops with communities. Others have more to do with civic innovation and have a technological bent: HackDF, Mexico City's first civic hackathon which gathered over 500 developers, designers and creatives under a single roof to produce 52 digital civic apps -tools to improve the quality of life in the city- during a 48 hour programming marathon, using public open datasets offered by a dozen city departments. Others are simply about opening up spaces for debate and conversation between relevant actors from government, creative sectors and civil society, such as our "Explorations for a Megalopolis" conferences or our Rooftop Sessions, informal meet ups on our 1000 sqm green rooftop located in the heart of the city. In only 9 months of existence, we already have over 25 experiments that are either ongoing or concluded.
AC: How does the Lab inform and explore issues and concepts dealing with government and urban infrastructure and lifestyle?
MB: The Laboratory for the City builds bridges between government and citizens, and creates links with other world cities. We are a new government area so, much of how we innovate and promote creativity is related to our own work processes. The laboratory is formed of a multidisciplinary team and is constantly designing new formats of meeting and learning. We search to create an active ecosystem of innovation and creativity by linking different people and projects within and outside of government. We incubate pilot projects transversely in various departments of the local government. We also investigate, collect and translate the best practices and proven ideas elsewhere in the world to adapt and try them in our local context.
All the Lab's experiments stem from what we call provocations. A provocation is not a simple question or hypothesis: it already contains the seed of an action. Provocations are not only a way to question and outline areas that are important to us, but also a first step towards the approach of new possibilities. Our provocations (for example, "Government as platform" or "Walkable City", etc.) helps us position ourselves between major objectives such as long-term goals and replicable experiments, and everyday concerns – things that are important right here right now for a city like Mexico.
AC: Describe the Lab's context of Mexico City and the influence the city has on it as well as how the Lab has contributed to Mexico City.
MB: We want to project and build a new narrative for Mexico City, giving it the weight it deserves in the global scope, as an innovative and creative city. The unique challenges of city-living affect most of the world's population, but so far it has been cities in developed countries that have led the conversation about how cities should work. We believe that there is much to learn from cities in the emerging world, and that more and more cities everywhere will start to look and work more like these cities. In that sense, notions of informality as a source of innovation, finding creative ways to breach and transcend digital or technological or social divide, or understanding how a megalopolis can still offer sustainable and human-scale solutions for living are issues that are part of everyday life in a city like Mexico, and that can bring a fresh and unique experience and unexpected "good practices" that we can share with the rest of the world.
Mexico City is a perfect example of both the promise of the challenge of cities of the future. We have a huge diversity of people and cultures, but remain socially divided. We have huge yet fragile physical infrastructures and myriad environmental challenges, but are also the 8th largest urban economy in the world and nearly half of our population is under 26. The city is chaotic and conflictive, but also brimming with energy and possibility.
Like Gabriella likes to say, it's one thing seeing Mexico City as 20+ million that need attention and services, but another to see it as 20+ million potential ideas and actors to improve city life creatively.
AC: Which collaborations/projects at the Lab that have taken place or are upcoming have you found most interesting?
MB: Every single project we embark on is collaborative in nature, and each one has its own particular value and charm. Aside from the ones I mentioned, I think some of the more interesting projects have been a workshop we held with experimental designer and artist Chris Woebken, to develop urban observation tools that could provide unique views of urban spaces and provide a unique sensorial experience of the city, revealing invisible or typically overlooked patterns and processes. We are also very excited about our upcoming "Mexico Maker City" event, which will focus on a homegrown version of DIY and maker cultures, with workshops, talks, and a even pop-up makerspace on our rooftop. The event will take place in November, as part of the activities of the Mexican Design Open, a citywide design festival.
Data Visualisation Lab
Walkshops: Walkable City
All Images Courtesy of Laboratorio para la Ciudad