seeing the city in digital times: a lecture

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.

smart-vid

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.

smart cities on Twitter: or, urban / cultural / visual / digital

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:

trial 3 brightness_median vs hue_median copy small.jpg

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.

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(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….)

 

 

posthuman agency in the digitally mediated city

That’s the title of the paper that I’ve just had accepted by the Annals of the Association of American Geographers and here is its abstract:

Accounts by geographers of the ways in which urban spaces are digitally mediated have proliferated in the last few years.  This significant body of work pays particular attention to the production of urban space by software and digital hardware, and geographers have drawn on various kinds of posthumanist philosophies in order to theorise the agency of the technological nonhuman.  The agency of the human, however, has been left undertheorised in this work, often appearing in the form of excessive resistance to the agency granted to the digital.  This article contributes to understanding the digital mediation of cities by theorising a specifically posthuman agency: that is, a human agency both mediated through technics and diverse.  Drawing on the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler as well as a range of feminist digital scholarship, the article conceptualises posthuman agency as always already co-constituted with technologies.  Posthumans are simultaneously individuated and exteriorised in that co-constitution, and this permits agency understood as reinvention.  The article also insists that such sociotechnical agency is differentiated, particularly in terms of the spatialities and temporalities through which it is organised.  It concludes by arguing that geographers must reconfigure their understanding of digitally mediated cities and acknowledge the inventiveness and diversity of urban posthuman agency.

Annals divides each issue into four sections, and I think this will come out in the ‘Methods, Models, and GIS’ section (GIS stands for ‘Geographical Information System’).  If you’d told me early in my academic career that I’d ever have a paper in any way associated with ‘GIS’, I would never have believed you. I was taught that GIS was the positivist (boo) technological tool of the military-industrial complex (double boo).  Which I think at that point probably wasn’t too inaccurate.

But GIScience has changed a lot since then.  Not only has does it now include many different theoretical approaches, including feminist work of course, it’s now embedded in a much more extensive range of practices, including data visualisations in journalism and geolocated social media analysis.  So it’s expanding in all sorts of ways… and as I’ve argued before, I think at least some of the cultural geographers of the same sort of generation of me should be moving too, rethinking our work in the light of the practices and theorisations of ‘the digital’ that GIScience, among other things, is now generating.  My paper tries hard to draw on that digital expertise, even if my goal remains focussed on what cultural geography was so interested in thirty years ago (oh my god it is thirty years ago): the making and remaking of meanings.

 

is mycorrhizal geography becoming a thing?

I spent some time this week making the final revisions to a paper.  It’s about posthuman agency in the digitally mediated city (and I’m afraid that’s its actual title too, followed by “exteriorisation, interiorisation and reinvention”, just to make it sound a really fun read).  It’s a theory piece, surprise surprise, working with Bernard Stiegler to conceptualise posthuman agency as both technically mediated and also differentiated.  (Thanks must go to James Ash, Sam Kinsley, Kathryn Mitchell and Sarah Elwood, geographers who’ve already grappled with Stiegler and made my engagement with him a lot easier.)

GWATG.jpg

from the film ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’. Nothing mushroom-like in sight but the nearest I could get to the story’s vision of both the city and its people saturated with a fungus.

The main literature my paper engages is the very rich body of work on digitally mediated cities, much of which has been written by geographers and much of which gives a great deal of agency to the technological without paying much attention to the complexities of ‘human’ agency (it’s usually left as just that, ‘humans’ who do things with technological devices).

I won’t give the whole paper way here (though I will post the abstract when it’s been definitely accepted).  Because right now I just want to share a thought prompted by my efforts to write about the sense of the urban that Stiegler’s work generated for me.  Here’s an edited version of my paper’s effort at articulating that sense:

…cities are particularly concentrated sites of the deployment of digital technologies, digitally mediated retentions and thus for the production of posthuman differentiation.  A posthuman, remember, is greedy for those external signs without which they cannot exist, and cities are sites in which those signs are produced, circulated and encountered most intensively.  Posthumans in cities are sociotechnically co-produced digitally with many different digital devices while doing many different things – communicating via Snapchat; travelling with Uber, Google Earth and Google Maps; being recorded by surveillance cameras and body heat sensors; playing PokemonGo; glancing at algorithm-generated advertisements on smartphone email apps; writing #blacklivesmatter in tweets; tagging and posting photos on Instagram; liking on FourSquare or Facebook; working on a computer generated image of an urban redevelopment project; viewing crowd-sourced i-documentaries, maps, witnessing plaforms and GIScience efforts to map marginalised urban lives; as well as the many things done with the platforms and databases that now insist that they are ‘the social’  – to name just a few, all of which generate data which is processed to generate innumerable tertiary retentions of many kinds, numeric, textual and visual.  Cities thus host and are mediated by dense gatherings of retentions (both digital and not) – critical, hegemonic, banal, silly – which accumulate into a vast “stratified constellation of technical memory matter, composed of resources that shape political and cultural imaginaries… with depth, height, scale, extensiveness and duration… moving in different directions… Its forms may change and its content migrate, accruing or shedding textures in the process” (Withers 2015, 17).  This is a reserve not only of retentions but of embodied practices, through which posthumans watch, touch, learn, think, hear, move and gesture, in streets, squares, parks and workplaces, mimicking, recombining, reinventing.  It is from this urban “media manifold” (Couldry 2011) that multiple forms of digital posthuman agencies emerge, as myriad retentions are encountered and reinvented.

As well as Stiegler and his geographer-interpreters, that quote makes clear another inspiration for my paper: a book by Deborah Withers called Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission, which uses Stiegler to talk about the work of archiving the UK feminist music scene of the 1980s (Stiegler is very interested in memory).  The book is wonderful, not least because it uses a fantastically suggestive vocabulary for describing what Stiegler calls ‘tertiary retentions’, which Withers also describes as  a “technical compost, an arena of composition and decomposition from which ideas, practices, knowledges and techniques emerge and diverge through dynamic processes of transformation, becoming, disintegration and solidification” (page 17).

Withers’s rich vocabulary is kind of implicitly organic somehow, suggesting change, growth, density, vegetal-ness.  I hope I’m not over-reading the ‘compost’ here… and if I am (ok, I am), maybe it’s because I also went to see the truly amazing film The Girl With All The Gifts a couple of weeks ago – about the posthuman in a rather different sense – and I couldn’t get its image of spore-saturated people and London out of my mind when I was writing this – hence the image above (though actually that’s the one thing I think the novel does better than the film – while the film pictures a kind of plant, the novel pictures a fungal mould thing that envelops London.  Oh and Radiohead was in the mix somewhere too – in my writing, not the film.).

Anyway, there I was, relishing and struggling with this feeling of the urban as a site of massified mycorrhizal tendril extensive mobile… with humans totally part of it…

… and I then came across a couple of great pieces in the ever-reliable Progress in Human Geography, one by Colin McFarlane on “geographies of urban density” and one by Ben Anderson.  Ben’s is a review of current cultural geography (I wasn’t quite sure where the cultural was in the essay, but who cares, it’s a great piece).  Both also evoke a similar language, of intensity, volume, densification, composition (ok, not compost, but close), morphing, extinction, decongestion, dispersal, flourishing, emergence…

This is all very suggestive, and is more complex than the by-now rather thin notion of ‘relational geographies’; as Ben notes, it’s surely a version of that kind of geography but its vocabulary multiplies the modalities of relationality in important ways.  And while its theoretical sources are diverse, I want to flag just one in particular  which I think hovers over much of this work as it addresses cities: not Stiegler but rather of the work of Nigel Thrift.  Thrift wrote a volley of papers five or six years ago now that, as far as I can see, went nowhere in geography as an academic discipline – I tried tracking their citations a year or so ago and came up with very little.  (I’ve listed them below, with a couple of more recent ones.)  Indeed, I remember reading them myself when they were new-ish and being fascinated by them but also not feeling able to do very much with them, they were so part of Thrift’s own project, formidably referenced and almost visionary, actually.

But I wonder now if what we’re seeing is a kind of fallout from that work, its spores seeding quietly and invisibly, in this work which shares Thrift’s interest in affect and bubbles and atmospheres and intensities (not his alone of course) but is putting it to use in critical and grounded accounts of cities (as McFarlane suggests) and to explore inequalities and violences (as Anderson suggests). One of the repeated criticisms of Thrift’s work is that it isn’t critical enough (nor, as I argue in that forthcoming paper, posthuman enough).  Perhaps we’re now seeing that critique come to fruition, as it were, in geographies which seem to me to be oddly fungal.

PS I’m not serious about mycorrhizal as the term for this sensibility, not least because my biology isn’t good enough to know if the term refers to what I’m trying to evoke (Wikipedia wasn’t very clear).  I did think about ‘volumetric’ as an alternative but I like the more organismic, vital feel of the fungal… and this is only a blog post after all.

 

Thrift, Nigel. “The Material Practices of Glamour.” Journal of Cultural Economy 1, no. 1 (2008): 9–23. doi:10.1080/17530350801913577.

Thrift, Nigel. “Different Atmospheres: Of Sloterdijk, China, and Site.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27, no. 1 (2009): 119 – 138. doi:10.1068/d6808.Thrift, Nigel. “Lifeworld Inc—and What to Do about It.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29, no. 1 (2011): 5 – 26. doi:10.1068/d0310.———. “The Insubstantial Pageant: Producing an Untoward Land.” Cultural Geographies 19, no. 2 (2012): 141–68. doi:10.1177/1474474011427268.———. “The Promise of Urban Informatics: Some Speculations.” Environment and Planning A 46, no. 6 (2014): 1263–66. doi:10.1068/a472c.———. “The ‘sentient’ City and What It May Portend.” Big Data & Society 1, no. 1 (2014): 1–21. doi:10.1177/2053951714532241.

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.

visualising the smart city as flow and glow

Earlier this year, I wrote a chapter for a book called Compact Cinematics – it’s edited by Pepita Hesselberth and Maria Poulaki and will be out from Bloomsbury early next year.  The chapter is called ‘Screening smart cities: managing data, views and vertigo’.  It’s a short chapter – Pepita and Maria hit upon the conceit of asking contributors to write compact pieces on examples of compact cinema, so we were given just 2,500 words – and it focuses on just one example of how smart cities are being visualised now: a promotional digital animation created by ISO Design for Siemens called Future Life.  What I explore in that chapter is why the animation is a really interesting example of the spatial and visual relations through which the smart city is being imagined into existence.

 

 

As well as on YouTube, you can view the animation on a panoramic screen in Siemens’s exhibition space in London, The Crystal.  It purports to show London, New York and Copenhagen in 2050, and it’s really provocative for thinking about how future cities are being imagined now.  And while in some ways the visuals are very familiar, with lots of pale white and grey buildings, lots of windows, thousands of trees and screens of all kinds, sunny skies and happy people, all managed from control centre using a holographic model of the city, there are also some rather more interesting aspects to this vision.

In my chapter I focus on the visuality and spatiality of the animation.  I think the visuality exemplifies what Thomas Elsaesser suggests are the ‘default values of digital visuality’: an immersive mobility in which the frame dissolves and the spectator is transported into the image.  The spatiality is thus highly and smoothly mobile, as the animation’s point of view shifts and glides up and down and over and through.  But there’s more to say about this animation, which in a longer chapter I would have explored.

For example, throughout the animation its types of visual content smoothly morph from one to another, from landscape photograph (or at least a photo-realistic computer generated image) to a 3D massing model, to a luminous flow of data or energy in a black empty space, to an aerial photographic view.  This visual profligacy – in which what were once very different kinds of images, wtih distinct materialisations, uses and ways of being seen are now available to a digital visualiser as a kind of drop-down visual menu, to be selected and used at will – also seems to me to be typical of digital visuals, though not many exemplify it to the extreme as this animation does.  There’s also a lot of interesting things to think about in terms of the temporality of this vision.  It’s a vision of the future seen through the current favoured aesthetic of architectural and real-time data visualisations; and a future which seems to have no past but also no sense of its own time passing, since nothing in its urban environments seems to have aged.

And in terms of things ageing – that chapter has already aged in my eyes, after I talked about the animation in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago, as a guest at the University of Amsterdam’s wonderful School for Cultural Analysis.  It’s not the first time I’ve shown the animation to academics, and  audiences always bring their own interpretations to the animation, of course.  A favourite game that developed in several previous audiences has been ‘spot the visual reference’: audience members like to discuss what influenced the animation, and the list they’ve developed collectively is long, from Disney to Bauhaus, from Hollywood superhero movies to nineteenth-century panoramas, from computer games to maquettes – and as I’ve already suggested, that eclecticism is part of what makes the animation uniquely digital I think.  It’s a high-end, smoothly edited, elegantly visioned, visual mash-up.

In Amsterdam, though, I got rather different kind of questions – closer to what the animation might be doing with audiences less familiar with the relatively recent cultural history of a small part of the world, I think.  My favourite came from Judith Naeff from Radboud University.   I’d always thought of the floating point of view that’s performed by much of the animation, hovering in a slightly wobbly way, engine buzzing quietly in the background, over cities pictured in various ways, was the viewpoint from a helicopter.  Judith, though, made a different and much better suggestion: that the animation inhabits the viewpoint of a drone camera.  Absolutely.  It’s a machinic vision, mediated not only by a camera (apparently) but also by a mobile machine: a hypermediated vision that’s increasingly shaping urban spaces.

You can read my chapter on the Future Life animation  here.  And here’s the Elsaesser reference:

Elsaesser, T., 2013. The “return” of 3-D: on some of the logics and genealogies of the image in the twenty-first century. Critical Inquiry, 39(2), pp.217–246.

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.