A Lab without walls

Published on 01/10/2009 - Games

Co-LearningSelf-managementCommunities / NetworksGamesLegalAnalogies of digitalCollective learningCommonsNetworks creationCommunication tools

Contributors: Antonio Lafuente

Commons Lab. BCK 2008
MediaLabPrado (Madrid) gathers a group of scholar and activists to study how to make visible and understandable the commons. For more than 2 years different approaches have been taken and the main criteria has been collaboration and openess. This approach emulates laboratory practices that is the reason for the name: Commons Lab.


It is often said that a family, a hospital, or a river are social laboratories, as they give rise to relations or conflicts that make it possible to understand all or part of the social environment of which they are a part, or which they help to create. Thus, by looking at a fragment of the world, it can be seen in its entirety, which is to say that several variables are sufficient (those that make it possible to plan, structure, and order) to gain a general understanding or a view of the global situation from a local perspective. Upon choosing the variables and adopting a protocol that makes it possible to carry out these simplifications without seeming capricious or arbitrary, several identifying characteristics become clear:
  • Community-centred: a collective understanding of the world or, in other words, working toward a world made by everyone, a shared world.
  • Analogue: to simplify it so it fits on a map, an outline, a graph, or an image, or, in other words, to create an order that is accessible to everyone.
  • Experimental: to recognize the tentative, experimental, provisional nature of the process or, in other words, to recognize that it will have to be reviewed often by many people in order to make it reliable.
In sum, a laboratory serves to make hidden (or blurred) aspects of reality visible, as well as to bring together fragments scattered about the surroundings, which is why many anthropologists and sociologists affirm that in practice, a laboratory creates reality. That is why it is no surprising that reality can be seen as a laboratory or that a laboratory can be seen as a place for the production and reproduction of reality. That is, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish where the laboratory begins and ends, or where its borders are. That is so much the case that when one speaks of a laboratory without walls, it does not mean working toward something that does not exist or the latest "new thing", but rather recognizing the difficulty in drawing the line separating what happens inside or outside.


The key lies in those protocols that make data relevant or, in other words, shared. There are many types, given that they comprise a set of rules (or conventions) that are perfectly adapted to the object (matter, subject, problem, issue) in each case. However, they all share a common feature: they automate functions, which means they are not personalized (there is no protocol for the genious), but instead can be applied by anyone who has received the proper training (or discipline).

The protocol creates a community of people who use it, which fosters a common language, as well as tested and legitimated devices, and even standards for the use of space. That is why there are so many workshops that looks the same, as in the case of health centres, botanical gardens, law firms, and photo studios. That is, in addition to the regularity we see among oceans, mountains, and jungles, there is that of institutions that study them, or, to repeat what was said above, where they are created.

If this reflection is correct, priority must be then given to the tasks of automating functions and building a space that reflects the nature of the activity we intend to develop, including protocols and practices. Speaking of protocols implies identifying the threshold of rigor and the commitments voluntarily agreed upon as a standard for behaviour which will serve as the shared world that constitutes us and that we help to constitute. A laboratory is a common space that creates a community out of those which use it.


Community is a key notion, although it must not be linked to any organic, ideological, or belief connotations. There can be, and always have been, distributed communities or groups formed by strangers, created on the basis of a particular subject or a problem.

They are called affected or concerned groups, all the groups that become visible when a new technology (such as a test, an intervention, or a survey) separates them from the rest, assigning them a technoidentity (for example, people with asthma, false limbs, or motorized vehicles) that could be into question. In other words, a laboratory does not need to comprise people whose beliefs coincide.

It is essential, however, that it be connected to other nodes in a network configured on protocols that ensure the circulation of objects among nodes that do form part of a community: they share and create a common space in a network throughout which the objects that are constituted by (and constitute) them all (which are discussed and evaluated) move. In sum, there is no community without the rigour (respect for the agreed upon protocols) enabling the production of objects able to move among diverse cultural and spatial fields. And if they do not move, if there is no interoperability, the commons sustained by (and sustaining) the community cannot grow.


There are no commons without a community, and vice versa. But who do the members of the laboratory represent, reciprocally? Who feels represented by what is being done there?

The laboratory is not a coffee break conversation or an academic seminar. Its function is not to clarify concepts, nor is it to make friends or build a career. There is no question that it fulfils the function of forging connections among people and things, be they "col-LABORATORs" (co-laboratory), occasional users, concepts, spaces, or books. Its primary function is not that of the delegated spokesman of nature or the state, as the Moderns and those who supported the French Revolution said, respectively. However, iIts foremost objective is to make emerging communities of those concerned visible: give them a voice, give them time, give them experience, give them technology, give them means, and give them words.

The Laboratory is not to think about them, but instead to think through them. Furthermore, given that it does not imitate all its historical and anthropological characteristics, our laboratory is inclusive, not closed to the eyes and presence of the public, quite the opposite, as is aim is to involve them in the configuration of the world.

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Commons Lab. BCK 2008

El Laboratorio del Procomún reúne a personas de ámbitos diversos como la filosofía, la ecología, el activismo, el hacktivismo, el derecho, el urbanismo, el arte, el periodismo o la política económica. Tras una primera etapa desarrolada entre junio de 2007 y febrero de 2008, cuyas conclusiones recoge Antonio Lafuente en su texto "Laboratorio sin muros", se han formado varios grupos de trabajo que se reúnen periódicamente y trabajan online para debatir y planificar acciones sobre el valor de los diversos "procomunes" y sobre los peligros que los amenazan.