There’s an interesting conference at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 2 June. Title: Future Passe. You can find out more here.
One of the most pressing questions emerging from all the hype about smart cities is how people in a smart city actually engage with smart technologies. That’s one of the questions driving the ESRC-funded project Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes, and I’m delighted to say announce its website is now live, at www.SCiM-MK.org.
SCiM-MK is a research project which will examine Milton Keynes as a smart city ‘in the making’ by a whole range of actors, including MK citizens, the city’s governance, smart products, smart data and various visualisations of smart. SCiM-MK will look at the social effects of all these aspects of a smart city. In particular, SCiM-MK will find out how social difference affects participation in smart, and whether smart creates new forms of social difference.
Since a better understanding of how different kinds of people in a smart city actually engage with smart technologies is now clearly needed in order to maximise the gains that those technologies offer, the project’s findings will be of local and international significance, learning lessons to be disseminated to cities across the UK and worldwide.
You can find out more about the project, the team, our partners and our activities on the site, as well get in touch with us, at www.SCiM-MK.org.
The Digital Geographies Working Group of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers is holding its first event. It’s got lots of various kinds of short presentations, opportunities to engage and interact so it should be fun and productive.
The event will be at the Royal Geographical Society in London on 30 June and if you have any kind of interest in studying or doing geography digitally, you’re very welcome to attend. You can book now, here, and the panel sessions will also be livestreamed on the day.
I spent a really interesting day at a workshop on Urban Living Labs in Brussels on last week. I’m currently PI of a large research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council called ‘Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes‘. The aim of the project is to carry out a series of close up, in depth analyses of how specific ‘smart technologies’ are embedding themselves (or not) in the town of Milton Keynes; in particular, we’re interested in how existing forms of social differentiation are being reproduced and how new forms are also emerging in that process.
Milton Keynes is a new town, half way between London and Birmingham. It was founded in 1967, and its current population is around 260,000. From its beginning, it has always seen itself as an ‘urban laboratory’, and it has a long history of experimenting with innovations in energy and transport especially (the UK’s first solar-powered house went into action here in 1972, as did the UK’s first kerbside recycling collection service in 1992). More recently the city council has been very keen to attract new experiments into the city, under the rubric of ‘smart’. So for example, it’s one of the UK towns trialling driverless cars, and has developed a Data Hub with an innovation infrastructure to support local would-be entrepreneurs. It was really interesting at the workshop to hear Simon Marvin from the ‘Governance of Urban Sustainability Transitions: Advancing the Role of Living Labs‘ project place Milton Keynes into the wider landscape of living labs in Europe.
My own research interest in smart cities is kind of marginal to way that smart cities have been pitched and marketed, and also to the extensive practices of the diverse kinds of urban living labs that I learnt a lot about on the day. I’m interested in how digital visualising technologies are shifting the way that urban spaces are experienced. So I’ve looked for example at how digital visualisations intervene in the urban design process, and more recently I’ve been examining what sort of visions of the smart city are being promoted by the tech companies selling smart hard and software on social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter.
Except that I don’t really think that these visualisations are that marginal to smart cities or to their close cousins, urban living labs, really. I think images and visions are actually very powerful ways in which certain kinds assumptions about what cities should be like in the future get normalised. So in lots of adverts for smart city tech, it’s assumed that everything important to a city’s functioning can be turned into reliable and secure data – including its people. It’s assumed that that data flows freely (most ads show data being beamed through the air via wifi networks). And it’s assumed that decisions about how to run a city are purely rational and technical ones of efficiency and sustainability.
The whole notion of a ‘lab’ on the face of it continues that commitment to technocratic solutions to urban challenges. A lab assumes a place where conditions are controlled, data is gathered and analysed, and data is then shared with other scientists/labs in order to enhance knowledge. In fact, and of course, on all those countes cities are nothing like labs, as scholars like Andrew Karvonen and Bas van Heur (who were both at the workshop) have demonstrated. (Well, there is one similarity, now I come to think about it – both labs and smart cities tend to be run by men.)
What I did find surprising about the workshop day – and perhaps this is something generated by that whole notion of a town or city being understood as a lab – is that questions of culture and conflict weren’t broached at all. Smart cities are increasingly finding that to fulfill the vision of a good city that smart offers, the people who live in the city really have to be involved. That isn’t a process that can be achieved by data gathering. Instead, it’s one that involves how people feel about their city, how communication and engagement happens in the city, what histories of place and belonging shape the city. All those are cultural things, not data things.
This is another reason why Milton Keynes will be such an interesting place to discover more about how smart technologies and polices actually work, because from its founding it has also had quite a distinctive vision of community development, trying to facilitate residents of the city to do what they want to do for their neighbourhoods. It’s an approach which has nurtured relatively high levels of voluntary action in the city, and we’ll be working with one of its leading organisations – Community Action MK – to work out just how that participatory culture is being mediated by smart technologies.
But, of course, neighbourhoods – let alone cities – are not full of one single group of people with the same interests, feelings, histories or agency. Not everyone in a smart city might agree about what kind of smart they want to be. ‘Smart citizens’ are not a homogeneous category, and I never got to grips during the workshop with how the notion of the lab would deal with radically opposed visions of what a lab might be experimenting to achieve. There are a lot of anxieties about data privacy in some places, for example, while in others research suggests that people are perfectly happy to give up ‘private’ data to commercial companies if it guarantees, say, a better bus service. How would a city-wide data hub negotiate between those positions?
The collaborative vision of urban improvement that’s at the heart of the smart city and the urban living lab is great, and was powerfully advocated by participants at the workshop who came from places with long histories of social democracy and welfare state support. But not all places – and cultures – have those histories, and even those that are seem to be under increasing challenge right now. So notions of cities as labs or as smart surely need to engage much more directly with the complexity of urban societies, the possibility that there will be (may be, at least) irreconcilable differences between different parts of those societies, and the role of values and priorities – culture! – in both of those.
I gave a keynote lecture at the Neue Kulturgeographie XIV conference a couple of weeks ago, at the University of Bayreuth. My topic was ‘seeing the city in digital times’. I talked about the challenges of keeping cultural geography relevant as a critical project when so much visual culture is now digital, and I shared my recent work looking at how so-called ‘smart cities’are pictured on YouTube and Twitter. You can hear my talk and see the presentation that accompanied it here.
Listen through til the end if you can (or indeed just skip to about an hour in) because I got some great questions afterwards. It was a privilege to speak as such an energy-filled event – thankyou to my hosts Matt Hannah, Eberhard Rothfuss and Jan Hutta.
I don’t have the time to do much more than report on a few things at the moment, so here’s a link to the website of the newly-formed Digital Geographies Working Group of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers.
The Group recently asked for sessions it could sponsor at the annual RGS/IBG conference this summer. We ended up with twelve sessions, which you can (or will shortly be able to) explore here. Do consider submitting a paper to the session organisers – the deadline is 6 February for most of them.
The deadline for pre-registering to participate in the online module on aspects of advanced image elicitation methods run by The Open University is 13 January. The module explores different modes of ‘participation’. Find out more here.
I’ve been trying to work on a paper about how smart cities look on Twitter over the past few works. One answer is this:
That’s a trial run I’ve done, working with the 900-odd images attached to a range of smart city-related hashtags, scraped over a week last month by my OU colleague Alistair Willis, and run through Lev Manovich’s ImagePlot software. Saturation increases closer to the centre of the image, and hue is distributed much like a colour wheel. Yes, smart cities are mostly either blue or orange!!
This is part of my effort to think about different visual methods that can respond – even if only partially – to the sheer scale of image circulation in digital visual culture now. It doesn’t touch on the dynamics of their circulation, but it does suggest, I think, a possible effect of the speed and numbers of images on social media platforms and the casual way in which they’re often seen: that we might see a certain sort of city as a colour field that enacts smart (for example) rather than a set of images that represent it. So the blue and orange mean almost nothing (though not entirely). What they might suggest, though, is something about the feel of the notion of the smart city, as it’s performed through Twitter.
What I’m now doing is digging a bit deeper into that ‘feeling’: what does a smart city hashtag on Twitter do with both smart cities and with the hashtag followers? What kinds of affect does it intensify? I think I’m kind of getting towards an answer, but of course I need to do some more reading. And here is my pile of books that I hope will help me think about what thousands of images of smart are and do, getting me away from smart and Twitter specifically and more towards thinking about the intersection of the urban, visual, cultural and digital. I’m also looking forward to reading a roundtable in the online journal Mediapolis, on the urban as an emergent key concept for media theory.
(I was going to make a snarky comment about it obviously being compulsory to use grey, black, red and white when designing the covers of these sorts of books – but then I realised that my workspace is pretty much the same colours….)