Medialab Prado

This is an organization that’s part maker-space, part poitical-science, that prototypes processes for civic life. It solicits ideas for projects, sends a call for participation; the participants get together and hammer out what an actual implementation might look like, build it, run it, document it, share it. Projects include things like: how to visualize the food chain in ways to allow people to make intelligent decisions about consumption, how to make taxis more usable. They prototyped the idea of participatory budgeting, now in use around the world.

To do this, they have several labs: a data lab, where they pursue ways of utilizing and creating open datasets, fab labs and maker spaces, to prototype and build physical objects needed for various projects, an AV lab to experiment with ways of presenting/”performing” the results of these projects in meaningful ways (beyond slides and lectures), citizen science lab, participation lab, neighborhood labs, a lab specifically for prototyping interaction between the public and government officials/elected representatives.

They’ve been on this for 10 years, supported by their city (Madrid) and a few other entities, public and private. They envisage their job as trying out processes for public-commons interactions, rather than the prevailing public-private (which means public-business) partnerships and citizens interacting in a city primarily as consumers. They see a plethora of public physical spaces (libraries, museums, …) available for this sort of interaction, but without the process infrastructure that the lab is experimenting with. In a meta sort of way, they’re now putting what they’ve learned about building this sort of organization in a MOOC, unfortunately only in Spanish for now.

I’ve taken time away from work over the past few months to contemplate my navel, thinking about what useful thing I could spend my energy on for the next few years. I thought about a makerspace/gallery for installation art and music along the lines of The Lab in SF or STEIM in Amsterdam. Following this thread led me to the Musical Electronics Library in NZ, something I have to pursue.

But Medialab-Prado seems much more interesting (if misnamed – should be “CityLab” or something). Applying the same principles to experimenting with mechanisms for civic engagement, and the process itself changes the way people interact, as the podcast points out. This is really interesting to me. Check out the podcast.

It’s interesting to contrast this with the traditional think-tank, an assemblage of industry-funded experts with very little regular-people input that generates output from thought experiments. One thing I learned from graduate school in music, that the actual process of implementing a piece results in a very different understanding of its underlying ideas than that gained from just conceiving it, and that the deeper, perhaps contradictory ideas often come from the interaction between the participants while building and performing it. Prototyping and implementation beat design.

Why is this resonating with me right now? It’s got to be partly because of the breakdown of civic life in the country I’m in, and the dawning understanding that it’s been engineered to be this way. From the place de Tocqueville describes, constructed on civic engagement (a bit pollyana-ish, to be sure), to a corporate oligarchy where everyone feels powerless. Of course, it hits all the stuff I was contemplating about makerspaces as well, and provides one answer to my nagging sense that music/art is a pretty useless and narcissistic activity, in the way the lab conceives the arts as a means to communicate new ideas.

From a reference from Richard Stallman ( that points to a Ralph Nader article in Common Dreams ( which referenced a blog by a chap called David Bollier (, who has a blog post about it (reference in the first paragraph).

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