Towards a new wave of technological activism

Understanding, Promoting, and Designing for Sustainable Appropriation of Technologies by Grassroots Communities

A workshop of C&T 2021 - 21-22 June 2021

Two online half-day sessions

The time will be determined to accommodate the widest participation possible from different timezones

This workshop is interested in the "development of digitally-mediated technologies that value social cooperation as a common good rather than as a source of revenue and accumulation" [3]. Therefore, it focuses on grassroots initiatives and local communities wishing to contribute to the ongoing critique of platform capitalism and its sharing economy narrative, questioning the commodification of collaboration [1], and engaging in building platforms for a caring economy that values cooperation as an emancipatory practice [4]. Moreover, this workshop focuses on the sustainable appropriation of emerging technologies by grassroots communities. Indeed, following arguments developed in relation to interaction design research and environmental sustainability [16], we argue that the works discussing the relation between design researchers and grassroots communities can be expanded and rethought in the light of the crisis of sustainability humankind is going through. Here sustainability is intended as encompassing not only the ecological aspects of life but all the dimensions, as social, economic, and political, that traverse what the United Nations have called “Sustainable Development Goals” [15].

Although most available technologies are not explicitly oriented to grassroots communities, the last decade has been characterized by a low intensity but constant conversation on grassroots technologies, as shown by the COST Action “From Sharing to Caring” [2]. Indeed, in some recent work, a systematic analysis of existing platforms has been conducted showing that grassroots initiatives need better support for collectivity when they work to design their technological platform [8]. While some features of existing platforms support aspects of collectivity implicitly (such as building trust and enabling participation), the ’social’ aspect of the participation is often not directly enhanced by the design. When grassroots initiatives attempt to scale beyond the level of a very basic technological platform, the pre-existing trust and social capital benefiting from their local focus might not be sufficient. In addition, if one wants caring communities to become an alternative to classical models of consumerism, driven by more altruistic and community-driven motives rather than profit-oriented ones, supporting collectivity should be a central premise when thinking of emerging technologies to support them. Indeed, this is something that is still lacking in current implementations, at least from a design perspective—or sometimes even explicitly hindered, as the example of Mechanical Turkers starting their own platforms to self-organize illustrates [25].

At the same time, there are more and more academic contributions focusing on how technologies can be designed with grassroots communities and on the reflexive positions of the design researchers, opening the conversations to novel questions or empirical contexts, aligning with the needs and desires of society.

For example, a few contributions have shown how technologies have been designed and/or appropriated by grassroots initiatives interested in food. If work done with a group buying organic food has highlighted the usefulness of analytical lenses like the distinction between strategies and tactics or the concept of artifact ecologies [6,7], other work conducted with activists trying to reduce food waste has connected the appropriation of technologies by activists to social values like collective care and commons [5]. The conversation on food reflects some of the key axes along which the discussion on technologies with and for grassroots communities has developed, namely: starting with problems that matter to people, like the aforementioned food or the transformations in employment [12,13,21] and welfare provisions [3,9]; acknowledging grassroots communities’ perspective on commons and care as theoretically relevant for design research [17,20,22]; discussing designers and people’s actions through the same language, e.g. the one of strategies and tactics, refusing to attribute a privileged position to the design researchers [19]; and, considering the collaboration between the design researchers and the grassroots communities in relation to existing institutions and institutional constraints [10,11,18,23,24].

The aforementioned contributions have had the merit of advancing understandings of the relationship between grassroots communities and digital technologies, but we think their conceptual focus can be expanded, technologically and socially.

Technologically, the focus of the previous contributions has mainly been on digital platforms or web-based technologies. Recent events in society suggest that there is a need and space to expand the technological focus of the relation between grassroots communities and design research on digital technologies. For example, a controversial technology like face recognition has started to be reappropriated by social movements to identify police officers involved in critical situations like the beating and killing that has been at the center of phenomena like Black Lives Matter [14]. Therefore, in this workshop we point to the importance of looking into the appropriation by social movements of technologies beyond digital platforms, mobile apps, and web-based solutions, to refer to what we call, generically, emerging technologies.

Socially, issues like fighting racism, promoting feminism, or combating climate change have emerged as key points of attention for social movements all around the world, siding the material aspects of food, work, and welfare mentioned before. The grassroots initiatives engaging with these issues, and the social movements emerging, have been advancing radical requests, e.g. defund the police, that are based on questioning the ecological and social sustainability of the dominant ways of collectively organizing life. Therefore, in this workshop we look at these social movements as bringing new ways of looking at the relations between communities and the world, relations with which designers can be entangled [22, 24] and relations in which the design, development, and use of technologies are important elements.

This workshop welcomes contributions enlightening how we, as technology design researchers and activists can understand, promote, and design for such sustainable appropriation, at a descriptive, technical or conceptual level:

  • Empirical cases illustrating the appropriation of existing digital technologies by grassroots initiatives’. Contributions might outline the role of existing technologies in infrastructuring such initiatives and their limitations in organizing action;

  • Technical descriptions of grassroots-oriented technologies and/or of the artifact ecologies that grassroots initiatives might adopt;

  • Conceptual contributions illustrating or expanding concepts, values, tactics and other socio-cultural aspects that are central to the appropriation of technologies by community initiatives. e.g. commoning, caring;

We welcome conceptual, methodological, and empirical contributions discussing sustainable appropriation of technology by grassroot initiatives in different forms: position papers, pictorials, manifestos, design portfolios, and design fictions.

In particular, we encourage potential participants to discuss their interest in the workshop theme, submitting contributions regarding next steps of working on a topic related to the theme. The following, non-exhaustive, list provides an overview of potential topics of interest:

  • The position of design researchers in relation to grassroots communities, e.g. problematizing the idea of expert/diffuse design, overcome by the bottom-up engagement with emerging technologies; that includes the relations between grassroots initiatives, design researchers, and existing or new institutions;

  • The exploration of (alternative) research outcomes that make results relevant to communities and other non-academic audiences.

  • The relation between grassroots initiatives, digital technologies, and aspects of scaling or meshing, grassroots initiatives.


1. Gabriela Avram, Jaz Hee-jeong Choi, Stefano De Paoli, Ann Light, Peter Lyle, and Maurizio Teli. 2019. Repositioning CoDesign in the age of platform capitalism: from sharing to caring. CoDesign 15, 3: 185–191.

2. Gabriela Avram, Jaz Hee-jong Choi, Stefano De Paoli, Ann Light, Peter Lyle, and Maurizio Teli. 2017. Collaborative Economies: From Sharing to Caring. In C&T ’17 Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Communities and Technologies, 305–307.

3. Chiara Bassetti, Francesco Botto, and Maurizio Teli. 2018. The Commonfare Project. Designing to Support Grassroots Welfare Initiatives. DigitCult - Scientific Journal on Digital Cultures 3, 1: 31–40.

4. Chiara Bassetti, Mariacristina Sciannamblo, Peter Lyle, Maurizio Teli, Stefano De Paoli, and Antonella De Angeli. 2019. Co-designing for common values: creating hybrid spaces to nurture autonomous cooperation. CoDesign 15, 3: 256–271.

5. Katie Berns, Chiara Rossitto, and Jakob Tholander. 2021. Queuing for Waste: Sociotechnical Interactions within a Food Sharing Community. In Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’21), 16.

6. Susanne Bødker, Henrik Korsgaard, Peter Lyle, and Joanna Saad-Sulonen. 2016. Happenstance, Strategies and Tactics: Intrinsic Design in a Volunteer-based Community. In Proceedings of the 9th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (NordiCHI ’16), 1–10.

7. Susanne Bødker, Henrik Korsgaard, and Joanna Saad-Sulonen. 2016. “A Farmer, a Place and at Least 20 Members”: The Development of Artifact Ecologies in Volunteer-based Communities. In Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (CSCW ’16), 1142–1156.

8. Susanne Bødker, Myriam Lewkowicz, and Alexander Boden. 2020. What’s in a word? Platforms Supporting the Platform Economy. In Proceedings of the 11th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction: Shaping Experiences, Shaping Society, 1–10.

9. Francesco Botto and Maurizio Teli. 2017. PIE News. A public design project toward commonfare. The Journal of Community Informatics 13, 2. Retrieved September 14, 2017 from

10. Roberto Cibin, Maurizio Teli, and Sarah Robinson. 2019. Institutioning and Community Radio. A Comparative Perspective. In Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Communities & Technologies - Transforming Communities (C&T ’19), 143–154.

11. Clara Crivellaro, Rob Anderson, Daniel Lambton-Howard, Tom Nappey, Patrick Olivier, Vasilis Vlachokyriakos, Alexander Wilson, and Pete Wright. 2019. Infrastructuring Public Service Transformation: Creating Collaborative Spaces Between Communities and Institutions Through HCI Research. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 26, 3: 15:1-15:29.

12. Tawanna R. Dillahunt and Amelia R. Malone. 2015. The Promise of the Sharing Economy among Disadvantaged Communities. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2285–2294. Retrieved February 17, 2021 from

13. Lynn Dombrowski, Adriana Alvarado Garcia, and Jessica Despard. 2017. Low-Wage Precarious Workers’ Sociotechnical Practices Working Towards Addressing Wage Theft. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’17), 4585–4598.

14. Kashmir Hill. 2020. Activists Turn Facial Recognition Tools Against the Police. The New York Times. Retrieved February 17, 2021 from

15. Lois Jensen (ed.). 2019. The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations. Retrieved August 13, 2019 from

16. Bran Knowles, Oliver Bates, and Maria H\a akansson. 2018. This Changes Sustainable HCI. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’18), 471:1-471:12.

17. Ann Light and Yoko Akama. 2014. Structuring Future Social Relations: The Politics of Care in Participatory Practice. In Proceedings of the 13th Participatory Design Conference: Research Papers - Volume 1 (PDC ’14), 151–160.

18. Thomas Lodato and Carl DiSalvo. 2018. Institutional constraints: the forms and limits of participatory design in the public realm. In Proceedings of the 15th Participatory Design Conference: Full Papers - Volume 1 (PDC ’18), 1–12.

19. Peter Lyle, Mariacristina Sciannamblo, and Maurizio Teli. 2018. Fostering Commonfare. Infrastructuring Autonomous Social Collaboration. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’18), 452:1-452:12.

20. Sanna Marttila, Andrea Botero, and Joanna Saad-Sulonen. 2014. Towards commons design in participatory design. In Proceedings of the 13th Participatory Design Conference, 9–12. Retrieved February 14, 2015 from

21. Chiara Rossitto and Airi Lampinen. 2018. Co-Creating the Workplace: Participatory Efforts to Enable Individual Work at the Hoffice. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 27, 3: 947–982.

22. Mariacristina Sciannamblo, Peter Lyle, and Maurizio Teli. 2018. Fostering Commonfare. Entanglements between Participatory Design and Feminism. In Proceedings of DRS 2018 International Conference: Catalyst (DRS 2018), 458–471.

23. F. Sestini. 2012. Collective Awareness Platforms: Engines for Sustainability and Ethics. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 31, 4: 54–62.

24. Maurizio Teli, Marcus Foth, Mariacristina Sciannamblo, Irina Anastasiu, and Peter Lyle. 2020. Tales of Institutioning and Commoning: Participatory Design Processes with a Strategic and Tactical Perspective. In Proceedings of the 16th Participatory Design Conference 2020 - Participation(s) Otherwise - Volume 1 (PDC ’20), 159–171.

25. Xinyi Wang, Haiyi Zhu, Yangyun Li, Yu Cui, and Joseph Konstan. 2017. A Community Rather Than A Union: Understanding Self-Organization Phenomenon on MTurk and How It Impacts Turkers and Requesters. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2210–2216.