Medialab Prado


Laboratory Without Walls

Reflections by Antonio Lafuente on how the Commons Laboratory (Laboratorio del Procomún) may evolve.

For several months, we have been discussing ways of making the commons visible, but what we called the Commons Laboratory (Laboratorio del Procomún)rather than being laboratory has been a seminar. We need to find a way to transform the classic seminar format into a laboratory of ideas.

For several months, at MediaLab-Prado (Madrid), a group of academics and activists have been meeting to study various ways of making the commons visible. Having spent many hours of discussion, our aim is it to make use of this experience to explore, together with the Platoniq group from Barcelona, new forms of collaborative work that emulate what we call “laboratory practices”.

Our starting point owes much to the traditional seminar format, which basically consists of inviting various experts to listen to a guest presentation and discuss it afterward. Usually the event, which is generally closed to the public, lasts a couple hours and ends after some questions and answers with no further commitment, other than to meet again, perhaps with another guest. It’s very unusual for shared initiatives to arise following these gatherings, given that their main purpose is to clarify the empirical basis and theoretical scope underlying the conceptual structure of the expert's discipline or work. In the case of long-running seminars, the majority of the participants form a homogeneous group that puts outsiders or strangers off. In sum, a seminar institutionalizes a certain slant on a discipline and the group that supports it.

A lecture series imitates the seminar formula but aims at being open to a greater audience, replacing scientific expertise with academic paternalism. In general terms, it recreates the split between expert and lay knowledge. Neither formula is satisfactory if we intend for these debates to reach the general public without sacrificing rigor or commitment. From the beginning, we wanted to experience knowledge production formats that were different from the old seminar and lecture forms. They may have been appropriate in a world with a scarcity of information and strict boundaries between people who possessed knowledge and those who did not, or between a culture of accuracy and a culture of emancipation.

After the first few months of work at MediaLab, it was found that a monthly seminar did not provide us with an efficient mechanism for the capitalization of ideas, nor did it offer a protocol enabling collective, detailed work from remote sites. That protocol is one of the ingredients needed by the citizen movement, a device that fosters exchanging experiences and the will to build a more just world. These conditions would be assured in a laboratory that practiced plurality and transparency.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the possibility of a seminar on social and political affairs becoming a laboratory of ideas. We have aimed to do so in terms not too closely associated to the initial experience, in such a way that our proposal can be directed toward other possible objects. When the term “the commons” is used here, it can be interpreted in two ways: as an allusion to our specific experience at MediaLab, and as a term referring to what is shared by a community.


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 techno-identity (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 inter-operability, 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.

The commons is created and recreated, connected and reconnected: it is born from the interaction of those concerned who miss something that is being denied to them, which they took for granted, as an inalienable legacy. The commons is a state of emergence (as it is unpredictable and urgent), arising from the empowerment of those affected who claim rights that have been threatened or destroyed. The commons redeems the public from their condition as subjects/consumers and fragments society into communities that resist reality. There are no commons without a community: making it visible is the task of the laboratory.

laboraty without borders








Automate functions



Develop collective procedures mediated by methods that turn what is tentative into agreement

Look for the elements that make communities cohesive and (through them) make the existence of those affected visible

wiki as a laboratory
Gift economy: service and agony

inventory of objects/communities
Make them visible


All these ideas can be put into practice provided that the aim is to convert a traditional working seminar into a laboratory of ideas. Prior to a description of our suggestions, we will take a brief look at the matter of spatialization. Things should be organized to foster an open and collaborative environment. We are aware that many people express this desire and also that it is easier to talk about intentions than to achieve a truly participatory atmosphere. However, we also know that the platform that raises the “lecturer” above the audience or the table that separates those that speak from those that listen are not devices that foster horizontality.

The set-up we find most neutral from a spatial point of view is the circle, where collaborators and the public sit in concentric circles around an empty centre. The camera filming each session should not be placed in a position that recreates a central focus which favours the construction of (media) hierarchies we do not need.

A few more thoughts: There are many devices considered efficient which take us farther away from the model we seek. The think tank, the workshop, or the committee are closed, corporative structures. In contrast, the forum, assembly, or atheneum, though more open, do not manage to overcome their generalist, occasional nature.

The proposal we have created and which we would be delighted to discuss fits into the table below (here is its image:

Dynamics of a laboratory





Constitute a stable group.

The purpose of the laboratory is to evaluate a handful of practices and some knowledge, which can only be done if a committed group exists. On-site and virtual attendance in the activities promoted is the key factor.

Prepare a work schedule, including a public offer of projects. The laboratory will select a small number of collaborators from the applicants (if any)

Experience new ways of producing and distributing knowledge collaboratively, in a rigorous and distributed manner, based on a gift economy, which means fostering an open system of benefits and considerations.

Recruit talent, combining a will for rigor, a desire to innovate, and the pleasure of contributing to collective projects

Each collaborator has a research project approved by the members of the Laboratory. The collaborators are full members of the laboratory. .

In exchange for their work, they receive support and orientation from the others. Even if they at a training stage, they are not support staff, given that the Laboratory eschews the temptation to recreate hierarchical structures.


Connect with other groups involved in the Laboratory's tasks.

The issue is how to avoid the temptation of usurping the voice of those concerned. We can be a group for reflection without claiming to hold the exclusive privilege of defining and assessing the objects of our study.
Few strategies are more efficient than selecting discussion topics which are both rooted in reality and lend a voice to those affected.

Create ties to other organizations of a similar nature, which means creating a common area which sustains and is sustained by the supposed confederation of laboratories.

Working in a network means not only having the necessary infrastructures but also creating a shared agenda and a mobilization principle which will give the commons the visibility they need.

Prepare verified documents that serve as a basis and guide to specific problems and practices, as well as an accessible bibliography of the most significant references.

Connectivity is not an end in itself but rather part of the project. The laboratory should supplement it by promoting the creation of thematic documents.

We have new technologies and communities. The third leg of the table is the matters we work on and the final form taken by the discussions held.


The laboratory meets periodically to discuss a text prepared by one of its members and presented by another, who explains the text's strengths and weaknesses. Then, collective discussion begins.

All these elements (working in a group, public discussion, presentations by others, assessment by section) serve as a set of devices for quality control and automation of the objectivation mechanisms.

Prior to the on-site session, the text is uploaded to the Laboratory wiki (WIKomun) and each member, including the collaborators, asks a well-thought-out question about the text. Thus, a public discussion is begun. The author of the text handles its publishing and management

Having a wiki is essential so that the experimental (verified, explicit, focalized, cumulative, collective, and protocol-based) work becomes one of the identifying features of the group which, not in vain, aims to call itself the Commons Laboratory (Laboratorio del Procomún).

The work of the author, editor, and moderator of the discussion, on the wiki (WIKomun) and at MediaLab, consists of drawing up concepts, specifying positions, and promoting points in common.

Preparing an event means relying on agreement. A laboratory must not only produce events; it is more important to discuss and gauge the scope of the data on which they are based.


Text published on tecnocidanos, Antonio Lafuente’s blog. You can also download it in pdf: Laboratorio sin muros. It is also available in the Digital.CSIC archives.

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