will the ordinary smart city please stand up?

For all its faults, Twitter occasionally throws up a total, unexpected gem, which is why I stick with it, and this is one: a stonking essay by Jacob Silverman called Future Fail which  I found via a Justin Pickard tweet (thanks, Justin). Silverman takes aim at the utopian techno-futurism of Silicon Valley and venture capitalists and sure hits the target. A sample: “At this apparently late date in our species’ history, as rising seas swallow South Pacific islands and chunks of Louisiana, the reverie of a frictionless, optimally engineered human prospect now demands considerable gall—together with a heaping of political naiveté, mindless consumerism, historical ignorance, and class and racial privilege.” And gendered privilege of course, which he acknowledges elsewhere in his essay.

futuristic2

As Silverman notes, the flip side to this technologically engineered future utopianism are visions of the future as technological dystopias, horrendous scenarios of technology gone horribly wrong, with horrible consequences (Silverman points to climate change, pandemics and nuclear war – but the widespread fascination with zombies must be part of this dystopianism too).

That dystopia is intimately related to utopia is hardly news of course. In another example, the pair structure smart city discourse all the way down. Smart tech can save cities; smart tech will ruin cities. Smart tech will liberate people; smart tech will surveill and curtail them. Smart tech will make buses run on time; but only at the expense of giving up data privacy. And so on.

Silverman’s conclusion is to reject fantasies of the future entirely. “The future,’ he says, “with all of its ideological baggage, and its smoldering graveyard of unfulfilled dreams, has failed us. We’d do well to abandon it, and start figuring out how we might survive the present.” Well yes, absolutely.

Except that, as many a sci-fi fan will tell you, sci-fi as a genre can be a useful way of thinking how things might indeed be different. In the future, right now, doesn’t really matter it seems to me. Which gives me an excuse to enthuse about a couple of books I read over the summer. Nothing to do with smart cities: they’re both what I thought were really interesting efforts at articulating how it might be to think differently, to be different, to deal with difference differently. Ostensibly in the future but why not now too. The first challenges the current dominance of the octopus as the go-to animal for thinking life otherwise: The Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which won last year’s Athur C Clarke award. The second gradually lets you realise that its first-person narrator is not exactly the kind of life-form that the Western novel is based on: Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Oh, and both do interesting things with gender, too, reversing and refusing it. As this year’s winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, Colson Whitehead, said, “Fantasy, like realism, is a tool for describing the world.”

Which is why I’m wondering (back to smart cities, folks) – what kinds of cultural work is feeding into current visions of the smart city, sci fi, fantasy or other? Techno-futuristic utopianism and dystopianism, for sure. Black Mirror and Elysium and Interstellar, for sure. A series of Philip K Dick short stories are about to air on UK television. (And then there’s the totally weird Netflix film The Circle, which can’t seem to make up its mind about whether total surveillance is a Good thing or Bad.)

But is there other sci-fi that just show smart cities as ordinary? Not horrendous, not heavenly, but just kind of a bit smooth, a bit glitchy, a bit fun, a bit irritating? And if there were, would that help us deal with their technologies? Answers in the comment box please.

(The title of this post was inspired by Hollands, Robert G. “Will the Real Smart City Please Stand Up?” City 12, no. 3 (2008): 303–20.)

swipe spaces and the lubrication of visual transformation

I went to the cinema on Saturday and was struck by the visuals in a couple of adverts screened before the film started. They were both very similar in the way that they showed people and locations constantly shifting one to another.

One of the ads was for Barclay’s contactless payment card which you can view it here. The other was for Uber. The Uber ad is called ‘Effortless Night’ and shows a young woman and man meeting, dancing, eating and so on. After each activity they climb into one side of a car, and then climb out the other side into a new location and a new cute event. The Barclaycard ad is very similar. A young woman stands at a photocopier, which folds open into a shop that she walks into, and the rest of the ad is her swiping her card and then leaning onto a surface (a wall) or going through an opening (a door), changing her clothes and location as she does so, ending up in a nightclub before flipping back to the office and her suit.

 

Neither ad uses obviously digital special effects; it all looks like film. (I realise that those distinctions are increasingly hard to sustain but I think you’ll know what I mean.) But it struck me that the constantly shifting locations and costumes were nonetheless influenced by the morphability that’s so central to digital visualisations. A digital film always has the potential to become an animation in which, to quote Suzanne Buchan, space and time become the real characters. In both these ads, the humans are just an excuse, it seems, to demonstrate a sort of hubbed temporality and spatiality, in which moments/locations are  visible and are connected only by the transition between each; there’s no flow or route, just sort of hinge from one thing to another: a car in the case of the Uber ad, and various walls and doors in the Barclays. Swipe spaces, if you like, a spatiality in which one location simply replaces another by an apparently routeless, kind of spaceless movement between them.

It’s the ease of these moves that seem to be the point of each advert, lubricated by the ‘effortless’ purchase of services and commodities, of course (neither of the ads make the workers in these spaces very evident: the Uber drivers are completely invisible). There’s something here about the alignment of flow, pleasure and transformation that much of digital culture seems to be cultivating right now. In these ads it’s sutured all too neatly with the apparently seamless, digitally-enabled flow of money. We’ve long been familiar with images of people constructed through the display of commodities they’ve bought: looks like this is the latest version of space/time being constructed through digitised commodification. Swipe space, anyone?

 

ten top tips for making a smart city promotional video

I’ve just finished writing a chapter discussing the ways in which ‘smart cities’ are pictured in promotional videos. I’ve been working with twenty-one videos, all on YouTube, made by seven US and European companies: IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, Siemens, Thales and Vinci. The chapter is heading for a collection edited by Karin Fast called Geomedia, out next spring I think. It continues my efforts to think about how cities are being visually mediated in distinctively digital ways, and also in ways that are both representational and operative.

smart-vid

In the meanwhile, I’d like to offer these ten top tips for the makers of these videos.

  1. make sure that your video starts with an aerial view – of the planet or of a city, it doesn’t matter, just make sure you start from on high and zoom in.
  2. ensure that every single image – apart from talking head interviews – moves. Film must picture things moving, animations must constantly transform, and if you’re stuck with having to film something that doesn’t move, overlay some animated graphics onto it.
  3. make sure you only film crowded public spaces, preferably with lots of kinds of transport. Then add some more transport.
  4. you must have at least one shot of traffic, at night, streaming through a glowing urban landscape. In fact, make as many things glow and flow as you can.
  5. don’t interview women, unless they are so important that it’s really unavoidable (which means a national CEO or the director of strategy of a national organisation at least). If you have to interview a woman, see if you can get away with not naming her.
  6. use as many kinds of imagery as you possibly can: photorealist aerial views, massing study fly-throughs, panoramas (pan across them), maps with things moving across them, powerpoint bullet points lists (again, these must be animated), app interfaces, systems diagrams, electric circuit notation, documentary video, etc etc etc.
  7. if you have to mention the health sector in relation to smart cities, or retail, make sure you picture only female nurses and shoppers.
  8. avoid any suggestion that there might be any discussion about the purposes, merits, functionality, reliability, unintended consequences or cost of smart tech.
  9. avoid any suggestion that a smart city has surburbs or houses. If you must show a house, make sure there’s a female figure in it either cooking or with a child. In fact, all children must be shown with female figures regardless of location. If you feel like adding a pushchair to your urban scene, make sure it’s being pushed by a female figure, and if the children are in school, ensure the teachers are female.
  10. finally, use music but use it carefully. It must either be uplifting and orchestral, of the we-are-moving-into-glorious-futures kind (though try to avoid it sounding too much like Lord of the Rings); or, preferably, it must be the plinky plonky cutesy sort of soundtrack popularised by Apple some time ago.

Hope that helps, guys…

new paper on CGIs as postcolonial visualisations

Earlier this month, Clare Melhuish, Monica Degen and I published another paper from our ESRC-funded project ‘Architectural atmospheres’, which looked at how computer generated images intervene in the architectural design process.  This paper focusses particularly on how such images might be the sites for the postcolonial visualisation of urban redevelopment projects.

Doha fieldtrip Days 1 & 2 171

a model and CGIs of the Msheireb Downtown project, photographed in early 2011

The paper is called “‘The real modernity that is here’: understanding the role of digital visualisations in the production of a new urban imaginary at Msheireb Downtown, Doha”, and it’s out in City and Society volume 28 number 2.  Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores how Computer Generated Images (CGIs) have enabled the visualisation and negotiation of a new urban imaginary in the production of a large-scale urban development project in Doha, Qatar. CGIs were central not only to the marketing but also the design of Msheireb Downtown. Our study of their production and circulation across a transnational architectural and construction team reveals how their digital characteristics allowed for the development of a negotiated, hybridised urban imaginary, within the context of a re-imaging and re-positioning of cities in a shifting global order. We suggest that CGIs enabled the co-production of a postcolonial urban aesthetic, disrupting the historical Orientalist gaze on the Gulf region, in three ways. Firstly, they circulate through a global network of actors negotiating diverse forms of knowledge from different contexts; secondly, they are composed from a mix of inter-referenced cultural sources and indicators visualising hybrid identities; and thirdly, they evoke a particular urban atmosphere which is both place- and culture-specific, and cosmopolitan. The study emphasises the importance of research into the technical and aesthetic production processes which generate new urban spaces in the context of global market-led growth; and, by considering the circulation of CGIs between sites, contributes to the development of “a more properly postcolonial studies” (Robinson 2011, 17).

smart city talk

I took part a month or so ago in an event organised by Georgina Voss and Wesley Goatley.  It was part of their Ground Resistance project at Milton Keynes International Festival, and as well as George and Wesley the panel also included Naomi Turner and Ramon Amaro.  We were discussing how smart city data, design, algorithms and advertising make a lot of assumptions about the sorts of social life that happens in smart cities.

groundresist

All our talks are now on Vimeo and you can acess Ramon’s here, Naomi’s here and mine here.  A video of the closing panel discussion is here.

more on ‘women’ and ‘smart’, mostly from smart women

My post last week on designing a smart city for ‘women’ generated a few different reactions on Twitter, as well as a range of resources for further thinking.  I thought it might be useful to gather them together.

Sam Kinsley (a smart man who blogs here) and Ayona Datta reflected on why smart city events are so full of men. Ayona pointed to the way in which tech businesses and startups are male-dominated, and also to the general ambience of ‘smart’ events.

Alexandra Notay usefully suggested some places to find female speakers on smart urbanism:

I got some nice reactions from people who I am now following and learning from.  For example, this one from the brilliantly named Urbanistas in London:

My favourite positive reaction, though, was probably this one, from City Regional Exchange in Cardiff.  I appreciated its self-critique – though who wouldn’t smile like that with £1.2bn…

I was also sent some very useful comments on how a specific part of ‘smart’ in cities is gendered: energy use.  Here’s geographer Harriet Bulkeley:

Harriet’s tweet also put me on to the work of Heather Lovell, who leads a project with the spot-on title of ‘smart grids messy society‘.

I also got to learn about the work of Yolande Strengers.  She kindly sent me links to several pieces she’s written on the gendering of smart homes specifically.  They’re great, and perfectly tread that line between acknowledging differences (especially gendered difference) but not reifying them.  Try this piece in The Conversation on how adverts for the smart home assume a male householder and no domestic labour. Or her excellent piece written for the Association for Computer Machinery here, on Resource Man: the rational, bill-paying individual assumed by the smart energy industry and also often by the smart city industry too (of course you want to travel the most efficient route home; of course you’ll reduce your water consumption if you see it’s more than your neighbours’).  (Her book is called Smart Energy Technologies in Everyday Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).)

Vanessa Thomas shared a paper she’s written with Ding Wang, Louise Mullagh and Nick Dunn that explores what they describe as ‘situated understandings of smart cities’ – you can find it here, in the open access online journal Sustainability.

Eoin O’Mahony also got exactly where I was heading with my argument.

Which was great, because other tweeters took my post in rather different directions.

Does ‘smart’ happen when #women and #gender are added?  That Modified Tweet really did modify my argument.  My post focussed on how we think about ‘women’, ‘gender’ and ‘adding’.  (And something that Yolande Strengers points out is just how white so many visuals of smart energy users are; ditto with smart cities.  It’s not just ‘women’ who are either ignored or stereotyped.)  I was suggesting that smart cities would become more open to all sorts of social differences if the data on which they rely was interrogated more carefully as it was made and used, so that its assumptions about social practices could be explored and multiplied.  Yolande’s work similarly takes a somewhat sideways approach to ‘adding women’: she focuses not on the situatedness of data but on the complicated messiness of what humans actually do with objects and technologies, arguing that smart energy devices in homes need to be designed to engage with that messiness.  Once you’re looking for messiness, whether in data or in what people do, you start to be genuinely open in your understanding of both technologies and what people do with them.

Whatever the precise tactic, ‘smart’ cities will surely be better achieved by engaging with the complexity of social life rather than by attempting to erase it.

so what would a smart city designed for women be like? (and why that’s not the only question to ask)

I came across yet another smart city event yesterday with a line-up of speakers that was heavily male-dominated: 38 men and 12 women.  I tweeted, “what difference does it make that men outnumber women speakers at a #smartcity event by 2 to 1?  Sam Kinsley replied and pointed out, quite rightly, that this wasn’t actually as bad as some other events claiming to interpret the contemporary city (for a really shameful example, see Emily Jackson’s post here about a day conference organised by an ESRC-funded research project without a single female speaker – I can’t help thinking that someone high up in the ESRC should have a quiet word with the organisers).

Nonetheless, it’s not great, and it’s part of what seems to be a widespread marginalisation of women among the voices discussing and defining the ‘smart city’. (Ayona Datta joined in the twitter conversation, suggesting some reasons why it happens. ) One day I will find the time and energy to do a proper analysis of the gender balance in the images attached to the tweets of the main smart city players, for example, as well as a headcount of the speakers at the main smart city beanoes, just to confirm the point.  In the meanwhile, after I’d read that event’s line-up of speakers and done just a tiny bit of counting, here a few thoughts.

I’m assuming that the overwhelming dominance of men in the smart sector does have a major impact: on what tech is designed and how, on how potential markets are perceived, on what data is collected and what even counts as data, on how the smart city is imagined and therefore built.  (There’s so much relevant literature  on how digital tech design reinforces various kinds of social differences that I’m just going to point to a useful website that summarises some of it here.)  That impact will be both on what social identities are (often) visualised and assumed (both masculine and feminine) and also on what identies are then enacted as the data or device is used.  It would be great though to see some research really work at that question and interrogate my answer (and another ESRC-funded project, led by my colleague Prof Parvati Raghuram, promises to contribute towards that).

But maybe a more interesting question is: how to put women into the smart city?  Ok, so that’s already problematic.  ‘Women’ are a hugely diverse group of course, who do a gazillion different things.

However, as social scientists, we also know that there are patterns of activity within those gazillions.  Women still do more domestic labour than men.  Women still do more childcare than men.  Women still earn less than men.  Women are still objectified as sex objects in demeaning ways.  So a smart city for women might, say, be focussed a lot more on transport apps that don’t assume that the traveller is one adult, but might allow options for adult(s)+children+(contents of a shopping trolley).  It might entail crowd-sourced mapping that pays as much attention to the various forms of childcare (breakfast clubs, nurseries, kindergartens, childminders, after-school-clubs, youth clubs) as it does to drinking venues (as Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski have argued here).  The tech of a smart city would assume and enable a wide and diverse range of social actions by people in all sorts of combinations and conditions.

But of course we also want to challenge those patterns, and many other inequalities too.  I’m currently touring a talk about corporate visions of smart cities and I often get asked about “bottom-up, participatory, critical alternatives” (a lot of assumptions going on there that should also be unpacked); the example of lot of questioners come up with are the many apps that allow women to log how safe they feel in particular locations and to send messages for help really easily in an emergency.  On the one hand, great.  City spaces are certainly not always easy for women to inhabit, and some apps make that even worse (again, Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski discuss this most excellently), so it’s fantastic that there are apps in response to that.  On the other hand, there’s something profoundly depressing – and disempowering – when the most frequent way women appear in smart cities is as the victims of violence.

So asking about putting ‘women’ into smart cities is maybe not the right question, or maybe not the only question to ask.  Not only does it erase the many differences among women, it also doesn’t always negotiate the line between ‘difference’ and ‘stereotype’ adroitly enough.

So maybe we also need a somewhat different agenda, which is more about moving between and against specific forms of difference via digital data and devices.  There are those all-too-familiar issues that ‘women’ face.  There are ways in which the design and use of digital devices can intensify those issues.  But other digital activity might have quite other effects.  In relation to those intensifications, for example, is there also something quite liberating, in some ways at least, to be mediated as a geolocated point in space, rather than as a visualised body encoded through gendered, classed, racialised and other ways of seeing?

Which suggests that, in a smart city, ‘women’ can be both: both embodied and a datapoint.  Among other things (a selfie, eg).  How then can ‘women’ be imagined, in a smart city?

This suggests that another approach to thinking about ‘women in a smart city’ would be to focus on how different social categories are constituted in the first place, when various things are done in cities with digital technologies.  That’s the sort of question asked by lots of sociotechnical scholars, of course.  But also by feminist scholars of data visualisations like Catherine D’Ignazio and the digital humanities like Johanna Drucker.  Their work focuses much more on the production of data in the first place and its problematic relation to social identities and the practices through which identities are enacted – data’s diversity, provisionality and unreliability, its uncertainty – and it focuses attention in particular on the process of turning data into something – a platform, an app – that enables certain social performances.  That is, it would be less focussed on ready-made categories of social difference and more on the processes of making data and making with data.

How would a mobility app or a city dashboard build that kind of data provisionality that into its interface?  I have no idea!  How would its users react?  Ditto!  But I would love to talk to interface designers about it.

Particularly because these are of course extremely sketchy and initial thoughts.  I hope to elaborate them in future posts on how smart cities are visualised in particular – but it would also be great to hear them raised too in some of those flashy smart city events.

smart cities and drone warfare: a shared visuality?

Geographer Derek Gregory was in Cambridge recently, delivering the Clare Hall (that’s a college, not a person) Tanner lectures.  Called ‘Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war’, the two lectures were fantastic, a forensic account of the histories and geographies of drone warfare delivered with panache and rich visuals.  (Derek blogs about his work here.)

reachfromsky

There were also three panellists responding to his lectures, journalist Chris Woods (check out his Airwars site), philosopher Gregoire Chamayou (author of Drone Theory) and legal scholar Jochen von Bernstorff, all also excellent.  Videos of both Derek’s lectures and their responses can be found here.

The first point to make – not a trivial one – is that at what, as the chair pointed out is one of the most prestigious lectures to be invited to deliver (at least according to Wikipedia), everybody without exception on the platform was a man.  And not only that, in the discussion time with the audience, the first 45 minutes were filled with men asking questions.  I was waving my hand NEXT TO THE WOMAN WITH THE MICROPHONE and the chair still contrived to avoid asking me to speak.  Finally, Chris Woods said he’d like to hear about drones from someone who wasn’t a man (thankyou, Chris) and I got to have my say.

So, what did I want to say?  Here’s an expanded version.

Well, Derek’s was a rich and nuanced account of drone warfare, embedding it in the historical geographies of aerial warfare more broadly.  One of Gregoire’s contributions was to say that there were also other contexts for understanding drones, not least the history of ‘counter-terrorism’, from urban police forces to colonial counter-insurgency operations.  But there is another context that kept occurring to me as Derek spoke: smart cities.

The link between drone warfare and smart cities isn’t that obvious on the face of it, but bear with me.  One of the reasons that drone warfare is increasingly acceptable to the states and organisations that conduct is that, as Derek described, it is embedded in a very specific set of spatialities, temporalities, visualities and subjectivities – and I would argue that many of those are shared with, or are at least very similar to, the rhetoric and practice of both drone warfare and smart cities.  Here’s a list of some of those similarities:

1 advocates of both smart cities and drone warfare share an absence of historical narrative so that their technologies can be seen as new, modern, better and more desirable.  (Which of course conveniently ignores various histories of failure, imprecision, rejection and unreliability.)

2 drone warfare and smart cities both claim to remove human actors from their practices.  This is often achieved via the generation of data (both smart cities and drone warfare convert (some) people into geolocated data in order to track them), and the execution of decisions on the basis of data.  There is thus a parallel between war being conducted by unmanned machines (drones) and smart cities being governed by databases and algorithms.

3 drone warfare and (many) smart cities are both managed through remarkably similar-looking command-and-control centres.

4 like drone warfare, smart cities rely on an elaborate cartographic and figurative visualisation in which the aerial view is central – and this appears in many of those command-and-control centres’ screens.

5 both are heavily masculinised fields of practice.  Derek is very good on this in the first lecture in relation to drones, and I’ve blogged previously about the dominance of men in smart policy, product design and marketing.  Derek also spoke at length about the ways in which drone warfare’s development was and is intimately bound up with (post)colonial power, and Gregoire underlined this too.

6 both smart cities and drone warfare are often resisted by the claim that they ‘dehumanise’ urbanism and war respectively (see point 2  above).  In drone warfare, not only are the victims of bombs delivered by drone rendered less-than-human (usually by being labelled ‘terrorists’ before being converted into geolocated data), but it is also argued that the men and women who control the drones are estranged and alienated by their work.  In smart cities, critics also complain that people are ‘reduced’ to data and that sentience is given to machines rather than people.  One of the things I found most useful in Derek’s lectures was the way he resisted this rhetoric by ‘peopling’ both the drones – which require a massive human as well as technical infrastructure to run – as well as their victims – as human agents embedded in complex societies.  Critics of smart cities tend to position the people/communities/inhabitants of cities against smart governance/corporations, as if the latter too aren’t run by people – which has various critical and theoretical ramifications, not all of which are helpful, I think.

Now clearly smart cities are not similar to drone warfare in the very fundamental sense that smart city tech is not designed to kill people.  And all those parallels that I have nonetheless proposed need nuancing of course.  Nonetheless, it’s interesting to speculate on what drives those similarities.  The patriarchal and racist “god-trick” of seeing everything from nowhere, dissected by Donna Haraway many years ago?  A deeply masculinist coding culture embedded in software corporations?  Nigel Thrift’s (2011) neoliberal, affective, “security-entertainment complex”?   A resilient scopic regime of surveillance, of the sort described by Nicholas Mirzoeff (2015)?

Whatever the answer, it’s a question that needs a lot more interrogation I think.  And in relation to smart cities, it’s one which won’t entirely be address using the current critical theoretical tools of data ownership and participatory design…

 

Thrift, Nigel. “Lifeworld Inc—and What to Do about It.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29, no. 1 (2011): 5–26.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. How To See The World. London: Pelican Books, 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

Big Bang Data: some thoughts on an exhibition

I had a lot of fun a couple of weekends ago at the Big Bang Data exhibition.  It claims to show “how the data explosion is transforming our world”, and if it doesn’t manage quite that, it’s certainly worth a visit.  It’s on in London and its run has been extended to 20 March – not surprisingly, as it was packed out on the Saturday afternoon I visited.  Its website has lots of materials on things that are in the show if you can’t make it to London.

bigbang 2

There’s lots to say about it.  After a couple of artist installations to kick things off (Timo Arnall‘s Internet Machine and Ryoji Ikeda‘s gorgeous, entrancing Data.tron – and We Need Us by Julie Freeman is installed towards the show’s end), the exhibition was divided into zones that reflected pretty accurately a number of current academic ways of thinking about digital data: the materiality of ‘the cloud’; the ‘quantified self’; the massiveness of ‘big data’; ‘data for the common good’, looking at participatory uses of data and digital devices; ‘data is beautiful’.  Each zone was full of examples of different kinds of engagements with digital data, by artists and designers and activists, and there were also a few (rather gestural) citations of earlier, pre-digital examples of images doing apparently similar things.  There was also a massive ‘London Situation Room’, with a number of very large projections of various data streams from the city by Tekja, as well as two consoles with interactive screens of various kinds.

london data streams tekja.jpg

London Data Streams by Tekja

The variety was fascinating.

However, the variety also served to obscure what I felt by the end was actually a rather uncritical approach to digital data.  Continue reading