Resilient Cultures is a two-day event about the contribution of open technology to resilience. (It will run in Firth Court at the Festival of the Mind and is open to all on Saturday 20th September 2014 — 10.30am to 4pm).1

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from stresses, strains and shocks. Resilient Cultures is about how open source software, open data and open hardware can help build social resilience.

A society is resilient if it can supply its needs (e.g. for food, shelter or health) without relying on systems outside of its control.

A society is not resilient if it relies on shipping large parts of its needs half way around the world. We are vulnerable to disruption brought by war, or the chaotic weather systems brought by climate change, or the volatile price of oil.

How can openness help?

The problem of surveillance is a good example. As shown by Wikileaks and by Edward Snowden and others, powerful states now routinely invade the privacy of their citizens. The lid on the laptop in my bedroom has a camera in it; is someone at NSA or GCHQ peering out of it as I write this? The paranoid fantasy of a few years ago is now documented reality. And a society under surveillance is not resilient because:

  • at least several hundred thousand people have access to the data: we are now forced to trust each and every one of them in perpetuity
  • we have created a perfect weapon for future dictatorships and despots
  • universal surveillance leads to self-censorship and undermines democracy (how long until corrupt politicians use surveillance data to compromise their opponents?)

Open source software is the only possible defence against indiscriminate state surveillance. Closed systems (e.g. Microsoft Windows, Apple iOS, Google's Android services, etc. etc.) allow spy agencies to demand the inclusion of hidden backdoors and then to prevent the system owners from saying anything about their interference on pain of imprisonment2. (Not everything open is safe, of course — witness the recent heartbleed bug — but everything closed is unsafe by definition. Bugs in open systems get found and fixed; bugs and backdoors in closed systems are hidden forever.)

Another example: governments responded to the 2008 banking crisis by donating trillions of tax $s/€s/£s to the banks. A society in which there is no moral hazard (not to mention imperilment of bankers' bonuses) involved in stimulating unsustainable investment bubbles is not resilient — there's no reason not to do it all over again! (In fact looking back at the dotcom boom we might think we're already in repetition territory.)

Open data can help: the more transparency we have in the use of government and corporate funds the more we can understand the implications of policy, deregulation and the like. Open data can also challenge false assumptions about how the economy impacts on health and wellbeing, for example. In The Spirit Level public health epidemiologists use open medical, geographical and income statistics to demonstrate that greater inequality means lower quality of life for all members of society.

Open hardware contributes to resilience by making designs repeatable, adaptable and local. For example, instead of buying furniture made a thousand miles away from trees harvested in the Amazon, we might download a design to a workshop in our locality who would cut it from reclaimed wood. Open hardware allows people to make their own robots and cameras (or even electrocardiograph machines!) in this way. In computing and electronics open hardware is helping build skills and manufacturing locally instead of in Shenzhen or Seoul. The UK's Raspberry Pi, for example (a cheap computer made in Wales which is very easy to integrate with other devices) is one of the drivers behind the new focus on programming with open source in the schools curriculum.

Want to play? Join us on Saturday 20th September (10.30am to 2pm) at Firth Hall.


  1. On Friday 19th September the event is for schools and is now fully booked.
  2. Yes, you couldn't make this stuff up! Or maybe you could — I must re-read 1984 one of these days...


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