Darío Wainer constructed GarageLab as an infrastructure for innovation, blending and digesting insights from across institutions and silos. A mechanism for transparent and free information flows, GarageLab uses new technology to promote accountability.
The New Idea
Darío has found a way to bring together distinct perspectives in Argentina, breaking down silos to create novel and creative solutions. He believes that emerging problems and unresolved challenges require a fresh, collaborative look, the understanding and contributions of varied actors, and the tools of modern technology. With GarageLab Dario is blending these aspects together, sparking new, multidisciplinary ideas and driving social change.
GarageLab is trying to create basic collaboration between business, government, and universities in Argentina. The cornerstone of innovation in Silicon Valley, Route 128 or Bangalore, Argentina’s institutions have been unable to cooperate effectively. Dario has created a new forum that invites the best and brightest minds from all three sectors to come together to attack some of the biggest issues in Argentina. Dario convenes all the key actors, who share ideas and information across channels that then give birth to solutions. In this way, GarageLab precedes the work of social incubators, which nurture and accelerate ideas and projects already conceived. In this “gestation period” GarageLab identifies the institutions, individuals, and professions most relevant to a particular topic and connects them for the first time in spaces to build and test new platforms, thereby conceiving a new idea. Each member of a coalition becomes an agent of change, now armed with knowledge that GarageLab’s processes have pull out. This transparency of information, originally separated among institutions and often hidden from the public, allows the coalition to advance its project together and often to pressure external actors, such as the state, to release more data on the relevant matter.
Founded in 2009, GarageLab immediately convened groups to focus on a couple of Argentina’s biggest challenges, starting with pollution in the Buenos Aires water basin. Through data mining from public sources of information, Dario has turned obscure data into powerful and visible measures—such as a huge map of the Buenos Aires water basin showing the twenty-five largest sources of pollution into the basin, with red, yellow or green lights to show progress in reduction of contamination and continued incidence of pollution to dozens of companies, government agencies, and citizen groups. Making public information transparent has become a critical focus of all aspects of Darío’s work. By making it possible for institutions and individuals to share their knowledge, they have more leverage to pressure reluctant state agencies to become more accountable and release information to the public or comply with their commitments not to pollute. GarageLab has already achieved new public-private-citizen partnerships of information sharing on rather disparate topics and is now adapting its own methodology from the most successful practices it concluded. With new potential projects frequently appearing on GarageLab’s agenda, Darío has created a powerful interface to break down institutional walls, one of the greatest barriers to solving some of the most challenging problems in Argentina.
As countries advance in their development, their economies begin to rely more on knowledge and an expertly trained labor force. Accompanying such transition, the society often begins to find new creative solutions to addressing its most pressing social issues that are often rooted among entrenched institutions. Argentina, one of the most developed countries in Latin America, still struggles in its transition from a historically agricultural and manufacturing export economy to a knowledge-based one. As such, many issues such as poverty, government corruption, and unsustainable urban growth continue to pose significant hurdles to society, without accurate information to analyze them or comprehensive, innovative ideas to solve them.
Fundamentally, the problem is not a lack of novel ideas. Argentina has a strong and renowned higher education system, and its graduates over the past several decades have been responsible for significant quality of life improvements. Yet most of these innovations arose haphazardly and only within specific institutions and sectors, rather than crosscutting society. The public sector especially is a victim of bureaucratic silos, wherein separate agencies refrain from sharing knowledge or collaborating on initiatives. Rather, government bureaucrats favor regimentation of systems, policies and ideas that do not foster innovative thinking. This rigid public sector environment forms just one component of a larger disconnected society, prohibited from participating without a transparent flow of information. Attitudes, behaviors, and norms in society insulate the creativity that is cultivated within the academic, private, or social sectors to those sectors alone. As a result, the institutional system does not properly stimulate or transmit the education and knowledge of the Argentine people to solve their country’s challenges.
While widening income inequality, government centralization, and impunity are increasingly aggravating social cleavages in Argentina, meaning that the need for creative, cross-sector solutions is all the more urgent. A failure to gather and release transparent, unbiased information could also lead to further government. Without a fusion of creative expertise, novel ideas, and innovative individuals to create a larger social fabric, the chance to narrow these cleavages and stave off any repeat of Argentina’s history of economic and social collapses grows dimmer. More than ever, Argentina needs spaces and opportunities for people across sectors and backgrounds to coalesce, share their knowledge, and envision new ideas.
With GarageLab, Darío is convening the important actors, thinkers, and doers related to rising social issues in Argentina, overcoming institutional barriers and leading the way toward breakthrough systems and solutions. It uses a membership-based model to secure a wide array of partners who regularly contribute resources and knowledge to a particular issue through specific workshops. Darío ensures that the ideas translate into action: as a so-called “DoTank,” once the members come up with a proposal and use the information they have created, they apply them through new processes and methods. Darío has a core membership of twenty-two people, coming from diverse backgrounds and professions, to support the organization’s collaborative work.
The first principle of GarageLab’s work, as with any social workshop, is the importance of participants. GarageLab brings each member into a physical place for discussion and interaction. The close proximity of members is a key first step to fomenting more concrete and productive relationships. Each person is invited to share knowledge and creative ideas, irrespective of the institution from which he/she belongs, thus building bridges between sectors. Darío allows up to eighty participants in a workshop. Beyond this, he believes groups may lose their continuity and flexibility.
GarageLab began with remarkably different workshops, representing either new technology or deep-seated social problems, including a social/industrial strategy for urban environmental degradation. These workshops enable knowledge exchange among experts working in the associated fields, citizens tackling the issue, industry leaders and public sector employees whose activities affect the particular ecosystem. Once they have shared their work, they produce and distribute an archive of the information that surfaced in the workshop. This collection of knowledge is the first step in demonstrating a multidisciplinary approach to an issue.
Next, GarageLab organizes a “Hackathon,” a session designed especially for the issue that involves the most interest. They range from tech professionals, scientists, citizen organizations (COs), journalists, businesspeople, academics, and government officials. The Hackathon sessions forge cross-sector coalitions that devise and execute prototype solutions or initiatives. These prototypes give rise to larger scale projects that find external partners interested in adopting, at a fee, the project or technology to expand their own strategies and achieve a higher level of impact. Although only COs have invested in GarageLab-inspired projects, Darío expects that businesses too will want to finance further projects cultivated in the workshops and Hackathons—a critical means for GarageLab to guarantee economic sustainability.
One of the most illustrative examples of GarageLab’s impact is the platform Qué Pasa, Riachuelo (What’s Up, Riachuelo). A river running into the Río de la Plata that divides part of Buenos Aires from the surrounding province and metropolitan area, the Riachuelo is one of the most polluted waterways in the world due to massive flows of discarded industrial waste. Without an integrated effort between industry, public agencies, and citizen groups, the Riachuelo degradation has remained a particularly infamous and impenetrable social issue around greater Buenos Aires. Through the oversight and support of GarageLab, a number of different COs developed a platform that uses geospatial mapping to assess the environmental impact of the local industries, government, and citizens living along the Riachuelo. The citizens living in the economically destitute area around the Riachuelo were invited to contribute reports, reflections and analyses of the degradation. In spite of their humble technological expertise, the citizens offered their voice in the workshop and Hackathon, as the group piloted its information-sharing platform.
After developing the Qué Pasa, Riachuelo platform, GarageLab presented the data to ACUMAR, the public environmental agency charged with monitoring the Riachuelo. The coalition of COs successfully pressured ACUMAR to release and permanently integrate its data on pollutants and water degradation into the GarageLab platform. By aggregating the official environmental data, made available for the first time, with those collected by external watchdogs, GarageLab reached an unprecedented accomplishment in opening public records. Now the government agency is taking action on initial cleanup efforts, working with recommendations and ideas that the coalition devised in GarageLab. Furthermore, the citizens—with a greater sense of agency due to their contributions to the platform—take part in events sponsored by ACUMAR and continue to provide reports.
The success of Qué Pasa, Riachuelo in forming a creative platform for knowledge exchange and in advocating for greater transparency catapulted GarageLab’s work into other initiatives addressing government transparency. Darío is launching another platform to monitor reproductive and sexual health in conjunction with the Observatory of Sexual and Reproductive Health. Together, they are building an interactive map that pinpoints and correlates the state’s role and influence in maternal and health challenges. The platform accesses “footprints of the state,” public policies and agency influence, and analyzes them in the context of actual indicators taken from citizen reports and public health data. This new way of gathering and presenting transparent data will help to keep government agencies accountable on their sexual health initiatives. GarageLab expects that the platform will establish new patterns of data collection, analysis and exposition, and above all give way to new perspectives in Argentina about oversight and cooperation among public agencies and COs on sexual health.
Darío knows that GarageLab can help produce innovative technological mechanisms and implementation practices that can monitor the state and demand access to government information. Because traditional COs may not have the tools, providing a space to exchange knowledge and collectively plan new platforms facilitates them to build a more holistic and persuasive case for accountability. GarageLab recently developed the Money and Politics Platform, using a similar methodology as Qué Pasa, Riachuelo, to monitor and appraise private contributions and public funds in political campaigns. GarageLab also coordinates the Developing Latin America program that involved COs and government officials to create an Internet database on education, public budget allocations, and security issues.
In the past year, Darío has guided GarageLab to become an acknowledged leader in the field of knowledge and information sharing, creative solutions, and open government. With a diversity of partners ranging from foundations such as Omidyar Network and Open Society, universities such as University of Buenos Aires and MIT, and the World Bank, Darío is building a base to launch more workshops and projects. Dario sees the case of Qué Pasa, Riachuelo as an exemplar by bridging previously closed institutions, engaging disadvantaged sectors, and achieving greater transparency through a new interface; these practices can be applied to numerous other social problems that heretofore failed to have solutions.
The first time Dario entered the World Wide Web in 1995 was a watershed moment in his life; discovering a new and meaningful alternative to the bookstores and libraries. He grew quickly enchanted by the concept of knowledge management and information retrieval, a critical theme with the early use of the Internet. Dario wrote a book and started a social venture on this topic, theorizing that the information the Internet made available was not actually reaching the people that needed it most, before the technology of precise search engines came into prominence.
Dario then launched his first startup, the online bookstore Tematika, which was a great success in Argentina. After Tematika merged with the ILHSA Group, Darío remained in charge of it for a few years. This startup experience, coupled with his takeaways from pursuing an MBA, reinforced to him that he craved to create social impact beyond a traditional business career.
One of Darío’s business school professors invited him to participate in a gathering for the Argentine scientific and technological diaspora, which fled the country after the economic crisis. Darío joined the organizing committee of this initiative, which gained the support of the Argentine government. There he met a close friend and business partner, with whom he discussed the idea for GarageLab. In 2009 Darío initiated the organization’s first activities, manifesting his long-time commitment to sharing information and finding creative solutions.