Session I

 Should Be in Control of the Data City?

Chairs: Susannah Hagan (University of Westminster), Adrian Friend & Saba Golchehr (Royal College of Art)

In this session we are interested in notions of design and agency in the data city, and will question current decision-making processes in data aggregation and analysis in so-called ‘smart cities’. What is the alternative to algorithmic governance aimed at efficiency and resilience? And how can socially engaged designers engage in this alternative?

Smart cities are increasingly under scrutiny for their top-down digital control and monitoring mechanisms. This is a consequence of choosing ‘smart’ systems using algorithms to help inform decision-making aimed at increasing the efficiency of urban processes. However, Big Data analytics such as pattern-recognition are also instrumentalised to predict or uncover unusual events or behaviours in the city, resulting in a call for action to prevent certain undesirable activities from happening. In today’s smart cities, the world illustrated in the film Minority Report is closer to fact than fiction, where we are all watched by ‘Big Brother’ and where data privacy seems like a notion of the past.

At the same time, due to the diminishing role of the state (e.g. the ‘Big Society’ in the UK or the ‘Participation Society’ in the Netherlands), city governments are welcoming technological solutions to promote civic participation through various software applications. These civic apps aim to encourage users to participate in the development of public services, and with that enhance civic engagement to ultimately increase citizens’ social capital. Opening up their governmental data sets has been the first step in providing opportunities for tech-savvy entrepreneurs working for the government to develop data-driven ways of making government’s communication and services more accessible to citizens. Outside business and government, digital movements that are closely related to daily urban life are emerging. Activists, technologists and citizens concerned with everyday problems in the city often lead these bottom-up technological developments. This has taken shape for instance through hackathons, in which socially engaged software developers tackle urban problems with technological solutions, or through non-profit organisations that develop virtual platforms to improve citizens’ access to public goods. Some examples include apps for addressing issues in citizens’ local built environments, for supporting entrepreneurship or for protecting nature in local public spaces.

In this session we question whether these two seemingly opposing positions of top-down control through monitoring and surveillance, and bottom-up civic engagement in urban decision-making, can be reconciled as part of the same ‘smart’ city.

We welcome contributions in the form of research papers that address one or more of the following topics:

–        (When) is top-down valuable and/or necessary

–        Design for bottom-up civic participation

–        Citizen participation through civic apps

–        Data privacy and ethics

–        Critical explorations of smart city governance

–        Critical reflections on open data initiatives