Published OnlineEdited and Accepted Articles

Seamful Interfaces for a Community-Centered Smart City / Catherine D’Ignazio, Eric Gordon, Elizabeth Christoforetti


Catherine D’Ignazio
Assistant Professor, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, MIT, the United States of America

Email: dignazio@mit.edu

Web: www.kanarinka.com

Eric Gordon
Professor, Civic Media, Emerson College, the United States of America

Email: eric_gordon@emerson.edu

Web: ericjgordon.net

Elizabeth Christoforetti
Assistant Professor, Practice of Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design, the United States of America

Email: echristo@supernormal.io

Web: https://www.supernormal.io/

Reference this essay: D’Ignazio, Chaterine, Eric Gordon, and Elizabeth Christoforetti. “Seamful Interfaces for a Community-Centered Smart City.” In Urban Interfaces: Media, Art and Performance in Public Spaces, edited by Verhoeff, Nanna, Sigrid Merx, and Michiel de Lange. Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, no. 4 (March 15, 2019).
Published Online: March 15, 2019
Published in Print: edit
ISBN: edit
ISSN: 1071-4391
Repository: edit

Abstract 
The ability to gather, store and make meaning from large amounts of sensor data is becoming a technological and financial reality for cities. Many of these initiatives are happening through deals brokered between vendors, developers and cities. They are made manifest in the environment as infrastructure – invisible to citizens and communities. We assert that in order to have community-centered smart cities, we need to transform sensor data collection and usage from invisible infrastructure into visible and legible interface. In this paper, we compare two different urban sensing initiatives and examine the methods used for feedback between sensors and people. We question how value gets produced and communicated to citizens in urban sensing projects and what kind of oversight and ethical considerations are necessary. Finally, we make a case for ‘seamful’ interfaces between communities, sensors and cities that reveal their inner workings for the purposes of civic pedagogy and dialogue. We conclude with five preliminary design principles for a community-centered smart city.

Keywords:  Smart cities, urban sensing, civic engagement, big data, community

Introduction 

Smart cities are a buzzword, a marketing trend, and an emerging industry. It is most often used to describe a suite of technologies brought to bear on urban functionality – from sensors, to autonomous vehicles, to the processing of big data for policy- and decision-making. [1] There is a growing body of academic literature that is critical of the cognitivist, ‘smart’ city, because it fails to adequately address the human and social qualities of cities. [2] This chapter emerges from that critical smart city tradition and focuses specifically on matters of power and exclusion. As cities become more functional, we ask: functional for whom? As cities become more responsive, we ask: responsive to whom? ‘Smart’ tends to refer to infrastructure – the pipes, wires, and data processing that make the urban landscape useful to the user; and, by design, infrastructure remains invisible to the user. In this article, we argue that ‘smart’ also needs to be cognizant of ‘urban interface,’ which we define as the membrane between people and the urban environment. Urban interface, in the context of the smart city, includes not only physical interfaces such as wires and cables and sensors and apps, but the ways in which people are invited to interact at all stages with a city’s digital infrastructure during its ideation, installation and deployment. For cities to be equitable and inclusive, these interfaces need to be visible. They need to lay bare the mechanisms through which the landscape becomes smart, and invite input, iteration and invention. They need to be ‘seamful.’ [3] This is not a simple dichotomy of clear interfaces versus complicated interfaces, but rather the idea, following Galloway, that interfaces are political and historical. [4] Clarity and usability as design values often work to support seamlessness whereas bugs, breakdowns, and errors can bring forward the seams – “the boundaries between zones of operation and non-operation, regions of stability and difference.” [5] In the pages that follow, we introduce the problem with seamless infrastructure in the city and suggest that a conscious turning towards seamful urban interfaces should guide the design of future cities. We then provide two case studies, one in Bristol, UK and the other in New York City. And we conclude with five design principles to guide the growth of community-centered, seamful smart cities. 

 

Becoming Data

While research and development for smart cities has been underway for some time, it is only recently that the ability to gather, store and make meaning from large amounts of sensor data has become a technological and financial reality for cities. Urban sensor data can be defined as information that is collected through a physical device located in or trained towards the city. This includes data from fixed sensors monitoring their immediate physical surroundings for features such as air quality, decibel levels, and public space usage. It also comprises data produced by remote sensing platforms such as satellites, mobile sensors mounted on vehicles, [6] and information collected through phones carried by individuals in their pockets. Indeed, mobile phones are packed with sensors that can be leveraged in an urban context, including Wi-Fi, microphones, cameras, GPS chips, accelerometers, gyroscopes, proximity sensors, fingerprint scanners and ambient light sensors. Newer versions will likely include heart rate monitors, and temperature sensors. When data is collected and contributed into the civic realm by individuals it has been referred to as ‘participatory sensing,’ [7] ‘citizen sensing,’ [8] or ‘popular sensing.’ [9]

There is growing enthusiasm around urban sensors among technology vendors and municipal governments. Markets are emerging around newly defined infrastructure needs, propelling the smart city from a distant curiosity to a mainstream imperative. Smart city discourse has captured the popular imagination as a meeting point between anxiety and promise, no longer focused on the distant future, but on the proximate present. Sensor technology is available and proliferating. For example, the City of Boston released a Request for Information (RFI) for smart city infrastructure in 2017, and received over 100 proposals from as many companies, with the majority focused on infrastructure – from enhanced efficiencies in resource distribution (water, electricity, trash removal) to better, more personalized service delivery (taxes, permitting, complaints, etc.). Each was focused on building efficient, responsive infrastructure to make cities run faster and better. In this sense, the smart city is a continuation of the Modernist city project that evolved throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. From the master planning of Paris in the 19th century to the top-down perspective of Brasilia in the 20th, the Modern city project has represented a steady march towards machine-like efficiency, where logic and planning could overcome unpredictability and poverty in the urban landscape. [10] In the 1950s in many US cities, this took the form of urban renewal (or the erasure of slums for high density housing solutions along optimized vehicular corridors), resulting in car-centric downtowns with clear transit paths between points on a grid. The pedestrian was often excluded from these machine schematics, because it was simply easier to do so. The pedestrian was distinctly less appealing than the driver in an era when individual mobility in a car was novel, and in a temporal and social context that desired an escape from the pollution and overcrowding of industrialized urban space. The Modernist city began as a social project (to make cities more livable) and transformed into a relentless drive for efficiency (to make cities more profitable). Throughout the twentieth century, there emerged a clear tension between the ideals of a ‘well-functioning’ city and the practice of being within them. [11] The debates that exist in the contemporary smart city continue this trajectory.

A central tenet of the contemporary smart city is the instrumentation of the city through networked urban sensors. Numerous projects that use urban sensors to monitor things such as street usage, air quality, and recycling rates are underway in cities from Bangalore to Barcelona. Urban sensors generate data from the environment, including from individual occupants, and as such represent a conflation between private and public space, where aggregated personal data takes on the character of public infrastructure. Martin Heidegger’s conception of modern technology provides some insight. When we do things with or in the midst of technology, he argues, the objects and activities of experience are converted into what he calls ‘standing-reserve,’ a process through which, “everywhere everything is ordered to stand by to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering.” [12] A sensor mounted on a street lamp collects data on the number of people walking across an intersection. That data is not collected for immediate use, it is placed in a standing-reserve for its use at a different time. In fact, a primary quality of the paradigm shift to big data is to collect everything now and figure out what to do with it later. As the former director of the United States National Security Administration (NSA), Keith Alexander said in 2013: “You need the haystack to find the needle.” [13] The character of modern technology, according to Heidegger, is this perpetual time shifting, wherein the immediacy of experience is placed on hold in the interest of efficient transactions in the future. Heidegger warns of a double loss: as (formerly) stable subjects, people become alienated from objects in the world, which are being converted into “objects for…use.” [14] Additionally, the human subject becomes alienated from herself. “[I]n the midst of objectlessness,” the subject becomes “nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve…[she] comes to the point where [she her]self will have to be taken as standing-reserve.” [15] 

The logic of the smart city is the transformation of the standing-reserve into infrastructure. And the logic of infrastructure is that it remains unseen. As a result, the bias in smart city growth has been invisibility – the capturing of data into standing-reserve, and the reassertion of that data as seamless and efficient functionality. Heidegger warns that as the human subject becomes the mere orderer of the standing-reserve, she too stands to be ordered, to become invisible infrastructure in a smart urban machine. The implications of ‘becoming data’ is that in the context of near infinite customizability, difference is erased. When immediacy is transformed into reserve, the power of ordering is not equally distributed. People of color, poor people, become data, like everyone else, but with decidedly less access to ordering and with significantly more susceptibility to be ordered by others. The use of arrests data in impoverished neighborhoods to justify an increase in police presence, for example, can serve to subjugate residents in service to public safety. [16] Or, as was the case in mid-century urban renewal efforts, that same data justified the wholesale clearance of “slums.” [17] The inequities built into the seemingly neutral invisible data infrastructures have the potential to destroy marginalized communities by placing them on call to be ordered by others.

The challenge for the smart city, as it asserts its technocratic vision for urban function, is to make visible the interaction between human subjects, their data, and the resulting urban infrastructure. In this article, we ask how critical urban interfaces can be produced and maintained that would enable a greater diversity of choices around ordering for those with historically less power to make choices? We want to shift the discourse of smart cities from infrastructure (invisibility) to interface (visibility), where the process of ordering is laid bare for the purpose of acknowledging difference and disparities. We need to open up room to challenge the dominant paradigm of the internet of things that adopts Mark Weiser’s conception that “the most profound technologies are those that disappear.” [18] “They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life,” he says, “until they are indistinguishable from it.” [19] Smart city technology is largely driven by this drive towards invisibility. Yet, as we have been discussing, the costs of such seamlessness are potentially great. As such, there is room for public sector innovation in cultivating ‘seamful’ interfaces for the smart city, or legible interactions that contain the characteristics of accommodation and appropriation. [20]

We are interested in how publics form and interact with smart cities and claim these sites of interaction as urban interfaces in themselves. Publics can be understood both as the people who share interests as well as the space in which these ideas converge to reach a critical mass of shared interest. A public, then, is both the work of reflecting on ideas as well as an “ongoing space of encounters for discourse.” [21] Those who are engaged in discourse are what Habermas and others point to as private citizens that have come together to share matters of ‘public concern’ or ‘common interest’ that are critical of the state. [22] Publics therefore provide three features that are essential to a democratic society: the location where ideas circulate; holding the state accountable to the shared interests of private citizens; and revealing issues that are important to people’s well-being. This chapter addresses questions of how smart cities should not simply invite some largely fictionalized form of public in for input, but instead, how they should nurture the formation and contribution of publics through the creation of seamful urban interfaces. 

We consider the smart city’s interface with publics across three overlapping dimensions: pre-deployment, in-situ, and post-deployment. 

Pre-deployment: Who decides what to measure? What role do citizens and communities play in determining what to sense in the city, based on what (whose) value proposition and criteria? 

In-situ: Once deployed, are urban sensors designed for legibility and participation or backstage monitoring and control? This is to say – are they conceived as interface, and thus opportunity for engagement and dialogue, or infrastructure, and thus designed for invisible service provision? What values do we see embodied by these design choices?

Post-deployment: Given that data is collected at one time and location in the urban environment and then used to inform processes and decisions afterwards, when and where are the interfaces between city, sensors, data and citizens? 

In considering each of these temporal dimensions, we look at two case studies as a means of scrutinizing how designers of smart city initiatives consciously construct (or not), opportunities for publics to form and interact. By examining New York’s Hudson Yards and Bristol’s Dampbusters, we illustrate the possibilities and practical difficulties of realizing seamful interfaces in smart city efforts. [23]

 

A Quantified Community?

Hudson Yards is a 28-acre private development between 30th and 34th Street on the far west side of Manhattan. It is the largest private real-estate development in US history – expected to cost $20 billion and involve the construction of 16 skyscrapers by its completion in 2024. The master plan includes a mix of commercial office space, retail space, residential space, a cultural space, a school, an on-site power plant, multiple public spaces, and expects to support 65,000 visitors a day. Sidewalk Labs, a company owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, will be one of the first tenants. One of the most interesting constraints about the site is that it will continue to operate as a railyard. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority invested $400 million to cover existing tracks and tunnels. Thus, only 38% of the site is available for construction, making high-density planning a necessity for return on investment. [24]

Hudson Yards has been conceived from the beginning as a ‘smart’ district or ‘quantified community.’ The latter is the terminology of Constantine Kontokosta, whose lab at the NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) is the academic partner in the project. Numerous aspects of the urban environment will be monitored by sensors, including air quality, heat islands, noise levels and usage of public spaces. The green spaces make use of ‘smart soil’ to help promote optimal growth, even though roots cannot reach deep into the ground since there are trains under the ground. At the building level, sensors will monitor energy and water consumption, the flow of people in and out, indoor air quality, and solid waste management (which, incidentally, will happen through chutes and vacuum tubes rather than garbage collection by the city). And finally, residents, workers and visitors to the site will be encouraged to download the Hudson Yards app and voluntarily provide information on their health, nutrition, and mobility to the development. In return for opting-in, these citizens theoretically receive optimized services. 

The first building in Hudson Yards opened to the public in 2016, but the majority of the development is still underway in an area of the city without existing residents. As such, we talk about the development as both real and speculative and treat it as both a discourse to be analyzed and a phenomenon to be observed. We begin with the theoretical assumptions guiding the development. According to Kontokosta, quantified communities are centered on stakeholder engagement: “The QC team have partnered with local stakeholders to identify priorities and goals and deploy an informatics infrastructure to develop a more complete inventory of needs and a more robust capability to evaluate alternative responses.” [25] These stakeholder meetings can be characterized as urban interfaces in the pre-deployment stage of the project. Interestingly, as Hudson Yards stakeholders do not include residents (since there are not yet any to be consulted), this stakeholder participation is sourced from the financiers and developers with financial interests in the site rather than small businesses and residents that abut the development, potential future residents and workers, homeless people, or maintenance staff. Thus, there have been few or no opportunities for citizen engagement prior to the design and deployment of urban sensors. 

Mattern asks: “Are there opportunities for meaningful citizen participation in creating the smart technologies that will define Hudson Yards? And what about the visitors? What about the conscientious objectors? What about the residents who lack the tools for participation — ‘smart’ devices or technological ‘smarts’ — and who are thus subjected to the city’s monitoring without being able to monitor back?” [26] She asked these questions to CUSP and the developer, and was told that the quantified community concept was still ‘under development.’ So, if quantified communities are centered on stakeholder engagement, who is doing the work of convincing powerful stakeholders (those who control the means of production) that this is the case? Historically, public participation has been a nuisance to overcome, a bug not a feature. If indeed, it is at the center of these new developments, it needs to be factored in from the very beginning. Who decides what to measure prior to deploying sensors in public space? In this case, it is driven by the private funder, authorized by the city, designed in the university and implemented by the private firms to ultimately serve the firm’s clients (who are not necessarily the same as the city’s citizens). Otherwise said, there are pre-deployment urban interfaces for financiers, but none for citizens. 

Likewise, in its promotional materials Hudson Yards has made very specific design decisions about what the sensors and smart systems look like on site. For example, trash is sucked away in pneumatic tubes installed out of view from every building to a dispensary on 12th Ave. [27] No rendering of the public park or buildings includes a sensor device. Mattern points out that there is a missed opportunity for civic pedagogy and that hiding trash in chutes promotes an “out of sight, out of mind public consciousness.” [28] Developers cite aesthetic reasons for this. Vice president Michael Samuelian was quoted as saying “Even in the most posh buildings uptown, you’ll see trash bags in front of the building on trash day. You won’t see that at Hudson Yards.” [29] These also translate into financial reasons. The homepage of Hudson Yards’ site promotes the “iconic brands” that have decided to move in and the “wealthy buyers” who like “culture with their condo.” [30] Monitoring traffic and pedestrian flows, air quality and noise, trash and soil is not highlighted as a public activity or offered to the residents and visitors (either as education, PR or debate), but rather designed to be layered invisibly into the infrastructure like a sewage system. The seamless urban interface is conceived as the desirable urban interface. The creation of invisible infrastructure, concealed in trash chutes and buried underground, is consistent with Modernist dreams of efficiency, bypassing any seamful interface of the city’s function. And yet, importantly, the designers of smart city projects such as this one continue to present their work as “driven by community needs and participatory processes.” [31]  

As Dietmar Offenhuber describes, when infrastructure is conceived as data, it is vastly more controllable. [32] When infrastructure becomes legible to machines and specialized humans, it serves a purpose well beyond its immediate utility. So different questions need to be asked. Who accesses the data and in which context? In Heideggerian terms, who does the ordering and who is ordered? Promotional materials state that “operations managers will be able to monitor and react to traffic patterns, air quality, power demands, temperature and pedestrian flow to create the most efficiently navigated and environmentally attuned neighborhood in New York.” [33] The goal for operations managers is to more efficiently tune resources to save money, to be more resilient in a crisis situation, and to provide more “personalized experiences” to residents and visitors. [34] And Kontokosta states that instrumenting neighborhoods in this way will open up tremendous possibilities for academic research, “allowing unprecedented studies in urban planning and design, urban systems engineering and management, and the social sciences.” [35] 

So, operations managers and academic researchers have exclusive access to the data for specific purposes. But when and how do citizens, comprised of more than just Hudson Yards’ paying tenants and clients, access and engage with the data? “In this universe, citizens relate to their city by consuming and administering its systems, and by serving as sources of measurable behavioral data.” [36] The main mechanism for citizen engagement with sensor data would seem to be an opt-in mobile app where people volunteer their health and wellness information in return for services. And Kontokosta and other researchers are exploring ways to convince people to volunteer more of their personal information. [37] Apart from the mobile app, it is unclear whether residents and visitors would have access to any dashboards or displays about the information being monitored and collected. Certainly, these are not part of the sales strategy, which is premised on the idea that the city is ‘smart,’ but the citizen need not engage with, question, debate or worry about that smartness because the professional managers and scientists have it under control. While Kontokosta claims that focusing at the neighborhood scale “allows for meaningful interaction with, and participation by, the people who live, work, and play in that space,” [38] Hudson Yards, as currently conceived and despite its rhetoric about being neighborhood-centered, is driven from the top-down values of efficiency, optimization, consumerism and professional management. The urban interfaces created at the pre-deployment, in-situ and post-deployment stages aspire to be seamless for the client, completely invisible to the non-paying citizen, and an object of analysis and discussion only for the professional class that will manage them.

 

A Community-Centered Smart City?

In Bristol, UK, the Dampbusters project represents a completely different approach to the production of urban interfaces. It emerged as a partnership between the City Council of Bristol (UK), Ideas for Change, the Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC), and academic researchers, with the express purpose of implementing a ‘people-led’ smart city initiative. After a process of consultation with community organizations in Bristol, the group determined that measuring dampness was the most useful active, applicable and realistic issue to use for their pilot. From seeing the dampness-measuring initiative through to implementation in the homes of many residents in the city, the team identified various challenges and opportunities for citizen-focused urban sensing. [39] In this final model, citizens were co-designers and partners, alongside a team of trained experts, in a targeted effort to pilot a single sensing effort from ideation to implementation. 

Dampbusters utilizes a clear capacity building process to identify, clarify, and drive outcome-based change around the clear and present issue of dampness and its ills, including impacts upon human health, in rental housing. A driving framework behind the Dampbusters case is a process-based model for civic engagement, problem discovery, project and product development, sensor-based data collection, data sharing, and actionable solution-finding. What they have dubbed the ‘Bristol Approach,’ represents an approach to smart cities development that aims to increase the relevance, accessibility, and understanding of smart cities applications by making infrastructure visible. While the smart city will continue to integrate subjects into the standing-reserve of data, the Bristol Approach seeks to build an urban interface that will enhance agency through transparency. By integrating discussion and reflection at every point in the smart city, the hope is that the Bristol resident is able to harness that reserve energy for community benefit. 

The Bristol Approach is a self-aware model for building an interface for social infrastructure that serves as a critique of 1) smart cities projects, which are often inaccessible to key stakeholders, and 2) current public processes, which often lack effective bottom-up development and inclusivity in their approach to project development and outcomes. [40] The Bristol Approach aims to balance bottom-up and top-down planning, utilizing engagement strategies such as public art and person-to-person contact as a cultural intermediary and point of public access, and giving a diverse citizen user group a leadership role in the identification of issues and smart city solution finding.

Urban sensing projects are faced with the dual challenge of developing citizen-led technical solutions that are relevant to stakeholders, and ensuring the accessibility and utility of data collected by such technologies to solve relevant problems. The Bristol Approach handles the former through active civic engagement and education during co-design in the pre-deployment phase of the project, and the latter through reliance upon a framework for data collection in-situ, and analysis, and policy integration post-deployment. Each of the project phases is coordinated by a group of consultants to optimize capacity building, project orchestration, and effective and meaningful outcomes. It is important to emphasize that this coordination spans all phases of the Dampbusters project. 

The ‘City Commons’ is the Bristol Approach framework utilized to guide Dampbusters and other, future citizen-led urban sensing projects. The concept of the commons is meant to capture the spirit of the participatory process. They claim that it “encompasses the resources we create, the way we share the resources, and the collective agreement about how we will use the resources for the common good.” [41] Importantly, it is meant to set up a seamful interface for a diverse user group to shape, develop, and utilize an urban sensing tool for the specific needs of local communities. The City Commons serves to clarify project development and governance, the generation, ownership, and use of shared assets, and the deployment of skills in relationship to product development and data collection in the urban environment. 

[INSERT HERE Figure_1_D’Ignazio_Gordon_Christoforetti.jpg]

Caption: Figure 1 – The City Commons, Ideas for Change, 2017. A diagram of the City Commons framework for urban sensing, created by Ideas for Change, a consulting firm based in Barcelona, Spain. © Ideas for Change, 2016. 

The City Commons can be described as something like Wikipedia for urban data collection, in which information is generated, maintained, and utilized by all. [42] In the Dampbusters project, residents directly affected by the dampness issue served as stewards of quantitative and qualitative data collection by deploying sensors in their homes and sharing their experiences of the impact dampness has had in their day-to-day lives. In both in-situ and post-deployment phases, the Dampbusters project relied upon the Commons to systematically collect, maintain, and utilize the data collected by the sensors.

Essential pre-deployment assessments included issue relevance and interest within the community, the applicability of sensor technologies and open data to solution-finding, and a determination of the potential impact and feasibility. [43] Mechanisms for pre-deployment engagement, led by KWMC and Ideas for Change, included identification and teaming with already-active community groups in affected areas to build on existing social efficacy, and working with artists embedded in these communities. Once key stakeholders were engaged and existing projects were mapped, the project leaders ran a networking event where citizens could play with sensor technologies, share relevant skills, and determine level of project involvement. Multiple engagement sessions – including a performance event, a data ‘hack day,’ school learning programs, and co-design workshops – were held, with invitations sent to the identified network of citizens and key community groups. 

The outside consultant team project leaders identified key lessons learned including 1) a focus on people and human-to-human contact rather than tech; 2) the need for clear expectation management in the pre-deployment engagement and assisted co-design process; 3) the need to make the process inclusive, utilizing artists to create buzz around the project and bring together a diverse set of individuals; and 4) the need to involve people with a range of skills, expertise, and direct experience with the issue to physically design and make prototypes.

Enabling the community to co-design the project and data collection tools is a notable aspect of the Dampbusters project and Bristol Approach. In this case, co-design is a process through which both problem identification and the development of tools are informed by the users and public stakeholders to optimize civic relevance, participation, and outcomes. [44] Citizens worked together during pre-deployment, led by experts and others with relevant technical experience, to build humidity and temperature sensors named Frogboxes, and to deploy them in affected housing. This playful approach to sensor building functioned as what Gordon and Walter call a “meaningful inefficiency,” [45] or an approach wherein less efficient means are chosen over more efficient means to achieve a goal. That these boxes took on the shape of frogs and were intended to produce a kind of delight in users, buffered them from the specific goal of sensing humidity. 

The Bristol Approach team engaged experts around issues of open data, energy, and building retrofit to identify ‘commons tools’ including data collection infrastructure and existing municipal data sets. It is worth noting that such co-design efforts require significant coordination, skills, and expertise. While ideas were shared by the larger network, a small group of individuals were involved in the physical design and making process. Technologists were paired with citizens that had no technical experience. Participants and designers collectively agreed on open source licensing and attribution, guided by the principles of Creative Commons. All pre-deployment engagement and framing was led by the initiating project leaders.

In-situ processes included tools for data collection and sharing. The Frogbox deployment occurred over two months in 2016. The team leaders established partnerships with the local energy providers, charities, and other local organizations to support the deployment of sensors in five households. The participants, recruited through pre-deployment active outreach, were trained to use the sensor technology and were willing to participate in the data agreement established by the City Commons. Additionally, a ‘community Dampbusters’ team was trained to utilize the technology and share their skills with the neighborhoods in-situ. The complex balance of social efficacy – onboarding participants and training community support teams that buy into the City Commons agreement – and reliable technology – sensors with a clear user interface that collect and transmit data reliably across location and were supported by local institutions – required a balance of bottom-up participation and top-down coordination and incentivization by external team leaders. 

Collaboration with the municipality was also essential to frame this issue historically and provide context for the experience of the local community. The Bristol City Council opened up relevant data, including 10 years of damp reports, to allow for public engagement with data showing temporal trends and problem locations. This increased level of data access, particularly when tied to a process of local issue-sourcing, community co-design, and visible data collection, points to the possibility of urban interface as prompt for self-advocacy in communities struggling with persistent issues, in this case the ills of building dampness and poor landlord maintenance.  

Post-deployment processes included engagement with professionals to assess the collected and shared data and action-oriented pathways toward self-help including report generation and engagement with a community damp team. Evidence generated by the effort in the form of temperature and humidity data, as well as reports of resident impact and experience, was provided to the city council. The Dampbusters initiative created a connection with the Bristol City Council to translate findings into policy recommendations such as the licensing of private landlords. In addition to the sensors themselves, the Dampbusters team developed an online tool to enable citizens to map dampness issues and continue to share their own experiences post-deployment. 

The Dampbusters project can be described as an urban sensing initiative that balances bottom-up (citizen stakeholders) and top-down (initiating institutions and external funders, along with the Bristol City Council) processes using outside experts (KWMC and Ideas for Change) to frame and coordinate the process. This approach acknowledges the organizational challenges of solely citizen-led initiatives, and the need to seek new approaches to urban problems that can utilize urban sensing for accessible and relevant civic projects with outcomes that are meaningful to public stakeholders. [46]

The Bristol Approach interpretation of the City Commons provides a clarified process for dealing with the complex interaction between local communities and smart city technologies in terms of both development and ongoing use. The attention paid to community engagement, citizen-led issue assessment, data literacy, and education is particularly promising as a one framework for an urban interface. The Dampbusters campaign-style approach to local training and participation, as well as its reliance upon existing community networks and institutional stakeholders, provides future sensing initiatives with a productive case for coordinating civic engagement. The Bristol Approach, which created a framework for the Dampbusters project development and execution, is a sufficiently clear, proven, and exportable process-based model for the development of interfaces between citizens and institutions – both public and private – within participatory urban sensing initiatives. However, like late 20th and early 21st century public processes as a whole, the City Commons framework must encounter the real challenges of community definition, leadership, and capacity. Without highly focused goals nested within a clearly articulated community structure in which ‘the public’ is both inclusive and defined, the concept of the City Commons lies at risk as a naive and shallow alternative to the contemporary public process status quo. A clear template for the replication of the City Commons model beyond Bristol that is closely tied to a campaign-style approach to local engagement with the assistance of organizational and technical experts will be critical to the success of such a framework. 

The leap from bottom-up participatory sensing initiatives to the creation of municipal policy and sustained long-term participation also remains challenging. The issues of motivation to participate, prolonged and reliable engagement, technological robustness and data quality, and clear (or relevant) incentives for post-deployment action has been recorded in participatory smart city projects. [47] Cases that demonstrate outcomes related to policy integration and sustained adoption of participatory sensing initiatives are needed to complement the strength of the Bristol Approach, which lies in the creation of a clear framework for coordinating civic engagement to result in a project with relevance and meaning and shared ownership within a local community.

The issue of outside coordination and funding is also relevant in the Dampbusters case. While it is unclear who paid the consultants to assist in the project and develop the Bristol Approach, there is a clear demonstration of external funding and coordination. While bottom-up crowdfunded efforts are effective to onboard participation, more centralized organization by an entity that champions the effort is key to effective and meaningful outcomes; it is shown that embedding external expertise can both foster learning and more meaningful participation. [48] This important finding suggests that coordinated efforts to obtain external funding and organizational assistance are advantageous, however establishing such relationships will likely become a barrier for communities with fewer resources, connections, and access to information.

Finally, the leap from DIY participatory efforts to accessible and robust civic interface is a significant challenge. The scale and nature of private sector smart city funding requires that most companies are developing and deploying smart city technology directly to municipal entities and other public agencies so that they can deploy quickly and at a significant scale. Such companies, called ‘vendors’ in municipal terms, develop technology remotely far ahead of outreach and deployment. Unlike large physical building projects, in which robust approval processes often require public participation and input during all stages of project development, policy for civic engagement in smart city project development and the approval of such technology is generally unprecedented. While sensing technology is generally less visually intrusive than the obvious physical impact of a real estate development project, the invisible impact of such technologies is significant and in need of policy to guide its integration into local communities. [49] 

As such, the Dampbusters and Bristol Approach case may provide a pathway for citizens, assisted and supported by outside experts, to shape, and participate within, the development and deployment of larger scale sensing infrastructures. The framework outlined by the Bristol Approach may be a platform for both DIY participatory urban sensing projects (which build awareness, educate users, and solve real community problems) and larger infrastructural sensing deployments (which are largely shielded from community input at all stages of project development and deployment). More case studies like Dampbusters are needed to build a bank of project references for citizens and invested institutions to utilize as tools for municipal and institutional advocacy. A range of cases that demonstrate effective outcomes, as well as transparent funding and organizational mechanisms, would be a great contribution to the challenge of scaling up such efforts to bridge participation and lack of expertise in both community-developed sensing and larger infrastructural sensing projects.

 

Towards a Community-Centered Smart City Interface

The two cases detailed above provide some early insights into the challenges of seamful interface design in smart city contexts. While we acknowledge that designing for legibility and seamfulness does not solve every problem related to equity and justice in the smart city, we argue that it should always be the starting point, or the basic value that guides smart city work. As such, we provide the following five design principles as a speculative guidepost for future smart city projects. Seamfulness, and the resulting legibility of technologically enhanced urban infrastructure, is the backdrop to each of these principles. In other words, if the seams are invisible, then none of these principles are possible.

1. Financial commitment to process

So many smart city projects are unfolding by vendors making deals with city governments that the City of Boston advised companies to “Stop Sending Sales People” in their Smart City Playbook. [50] In the Hudson Yards case, we see significant financial commitment to research and management but not to engagement and participation. When cities are regarded as simply a deployment testbed or new market opportunity, then the public engagement process is a nuisance to be overcome or a step to disregard entirely. It is important that cities center the process and allocate substantial project resources to it, or, as in the Bristol case, an outside funder provides opportunity for the city to appropriately focus on generating seamful interfaces. 

2. Expand the community and co-design research questions with them

Who is ‘the community’? Hudson Yards illustrates the slippery slope of using the language of community engagement to mean solely rich contractors with a financial stake in the project. Co-design refers to the design of a process for project initiation, development, deployment, and ownership. Such a process is tightly focused on solving problems that are both relevant to local communities (beyond the developers themselves) and for which sensing technology presents a pathway toward solution-finding and community-led advocacy. Dampbusters represents an interesting case study in codesign but also illustrates some of the challenges of co-design. In larger efforts, at scales that eclipse any single neighborhood or community, co-design may refer to the development of a relevant process for the approval and open integration of sensing technologies into local communities; a process for providing accessibility to, and ownership of, data could similarly be a product of co-design. Such larger scale co-design efforts require both municipal policy and an improved balance of top-down and bottom-up input. 

3. Financial commitment to building stakeholders’ data and technology literacy

A significant amount of capacity-building may need to take place in order for stakeholders to be able to have a meaningful conversation around potential benefits, risks and impacts of a smart cities project. This is true among citizens as well as municipal staff and consultants. The imbalance of knowledge between large, well-funded ‘vendors’ providing tech, and the cities, consultants, and citizens who ultimately use it is significant. This capacity building should not be regarded as an afterthought (to manufacture consent for sensors in public space), but as a precursor to initiating a project. Cities and vendors should look at this as an investment in the democratic process as well as in city-scale economic development. In the Dampbusters project, we see an example of taking this commitment to education seriously, but it also poses challenges for scale and community definition. Such educational efforts require funding, but there is potential for integration into learning and training from kindergarten to professional development to retiree advocacy.

4. Intentionally craft meaningful inefficiencies

As discussed above, smart city technology has been trained upon maximizing infrastructural efficiency. This is certainly the case with Hudson Yards, where the sensing instruments are geared towards delivering a seamless smart city experience and the interfaces to the data are meant solely for managers. Very little attention has been paid to cultural optimization in urban communities, agendas that have historically fallen under the purview of designers and artists. Designing meaningful inefficiencies means crafting experiences of play, wonder and dialogue around sensors and data. [51] Dampbusters intentionally incorporated meaningful inefficiencies in their project through the choice of a playful frog interface for measuring dampness and through their work with artists to pique the public’s curiosity about the project. Such inefficiencies, rather than becoming counterproductive to the end goal of improving urban space (and place), can facilitate deeper and more effective community growth, systemic openness, heightened technological relevance, increased civic participation, and cultural production – aspects of urban development that reinforce the end goal of healthy places for people.

5. Design data governance structures that empower communities

Without the right people at the table from the beginning, sensor data stands to exacerbate existing inequalities around differential monitoring and surveillance of people of color and marginalized communities. To prevent against this and other harmful impacts of data collection, it is crucial to design data governance structures that empower communities and solicit their voices in an on-going way. Hudson Yards represents the unfortunate and more common extreme in which data is proprietary, hidden from residents, and citizens engage only as data-providers. Dampbusters points towards a more inclusive governance structure, but without data governance written into city policy and on-going civic data capacity building there are questions around sustainability of efforts like this. Other options for data governance might include coordinating on-the-ground citizen data collection efforts that augment information collected from sensors, like the community watch program in Los Angeles that documents instances of police brutality. [52] Or doing a periodic equity audit of open data assets like the Detroit Equitable Open Data Report. [53] More comprehensive and strategic governance structures could include privacy-by-design, opt-out features for individual citizens, a smart-city oversight committee, a compliance team that works across city departments and a cybersecurity emergency response team. [54] 

 

Conclusions

The two examples of smart city projects presented here, Hudson Yards and Bristol, are different in scale, style and approach. And yet they are each invested in introducing data surveillance and technology into the urban landscape to make life in cities more convenient, more enjoyable, and more efficient. As we have argued in this paper, with quantification comes the uncanny ability to control and contain human interaction. As Heidegger suggests, technology shifts time. It transforms human actions and even desires into standing-reserve, an aggregation of our data traces to be ordered by others for some purpose distinct from our immediate reality. For example, our mobility around the city is captured by the tracking of mobile phones, transformed into standing-reserve, and made actionable by measuring traffic patterns in real time. While the benefits of such standing-reserve are clear, on a fundamental level, our actions are captured, contained, and ordered by other people and machines that are not us. Even as such ordering is discursively resisted in the Bristol Approach, ordering is the promise of all smart city projects. However, the value proposition in the Dampbusters project is guided by its stakeholder engagement and the creation of a seamful interface wherein the end user is made aware of the capturing, containing and ordering of data. That same ‘stakeholder engagement’ rhetoric is adopted in Hudson Yards, but rings untrue because the spirit of technological novelty seeks to cover up the seams, rendering the smart city like an Apple product – a beautiful, mysterious object that works seamlessly. The smart city is a powerful idea, one that is stuck in the collective consciousness as a persistent promise. But like all promises that are too good to be true, it needs to be scrutinized and acted on by the receivers of that promise. The design principles we present above are meant to help do that work.

What is being sold as infrastructure, as a project of maximized efficiency best left invisible, is in fact interface, and needs to be premised on interaction, dialogue and feedback. The data sourced and collected in the smart city is of a private nature, even as it is aggregated, anonymized and sold as public infrastructure. As city dwellers, embodied and imbued with social difference, are abstracted into data, the designers of smart cities need to build structures that make the process visible. As we have demonstrated in this paper, there is need for a seamful design of the smart city, where the implications of becoming data are made legible and the affordances made usable for the purpose of serving everyone, not just customers of smart city products.

An earlier version of this essay was published in Paolo Cardullo, Cesare Di Feliciantonio, and Ron Kitchen, eds., Right to the Smart City (Emerald Publishing, forthcoming in 2019).

 

Authors Biographies 

Catherine D’Ignazio is a scholar, artist/designer and hacker mama who focuses on feminist technology, data literacy and civic engagement. She has run women’s health hackathons, designed global news recommendation systems, created talking and tweeting water quality sculptures, and led walking data visualizations to envision the future of sea level rise. Her forthcoming book from MIT Press, Data Feminism, co-authored with Lauren Klein, charts a course for more ethical and empowering data science practices. Her research at the intersection of technology, design and social change has been published in the Journal of Peer Production, the Journal of Community Informatics, and the proceedings of Human Factors in Computing Systems (ACM SIGCHI). D’Ignazio is an Assistant Professor of Urban Science and Planning at MIT, a Senior Fellow at the Emerson Engagement Lab and a research affiliate at the MIT Center for Civic Media & MIT Media Lab.

 

Eric Gordon is a professor of civic media and the director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College in Boston. His research focuses on how publics engage with civic institutions in a context of diminishing trust. His work has focused on the role of play, delight, and debate in democracy. His book Meaningful Inefficiencies: How Designers are Transforming Civic Life by Creating Opportunities to Care is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

 

Elizabeth Christoforetti directs Supernormal, an architecture, urban design, and research practice that explores the cultural, typological, and process-based implications of digital systems for urban space. She founded Supernormal as a home for research in practice that bridges the analytic, critical design, and theoretical capacities required to create meaningful design outcomes in the real world. The work of Supernormal includes architecture, spatial analysis, and urban design. Elizabeth is also an Assistant Professor in Practice of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Notes and References 

[1] There are too many sources to list here. Major telecommunication companies, from AT&T to Sprint, have smart city initiatives. Infrastructure providers like GE and IBM have invested significantly in the term and have business units devoted entirely to these efforts.

[2] Anthony M. Townsend, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (New  York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013); Rob Kitchin, “The Real-time City? Big Data and Smart Urbanism,” GeoJournal 79, no. 1 (2014): 1-14.

[3] Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell, Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).

[4] Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2012).

[5] Dourish and Bell, Divining a Digital Future, 120.

[6] Importantly, such mobile sensing devices can collect data on the physical and social environment that is linked to location with precise, time-stamped latitude-longitude coordinates. This allows for an increasingly high-resolution measurement of change or difference across time and space.

[7] Delphine Christin et al., “A Survey on Privacy in Mobile Participatory Sensing Applications.” Journal of systems and software 84, no. 11 (2011): 1928-1946.

[8] Jennifer Gabrys, “Programming Environments: Environmentality and Citizen Sensing in the Smart City.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 1 (2014): 30-48.

[9] Catherine D’Ignazio and Ethan Zuckerman, “Are We Citizen Scientists, Citizen Sensors or Something Else Entirely? Popular Sensing and Citizenship for the Internet of Things,” in International Handbook of Media Literacy Education, eds. Belinha S. De Abreu, Paul Mihailidis, Alice Y.L. Lee, Jad Melki, and Julian McDougall, 193–210 (New York, NY, and Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2017).

[10] Eric Gordon, The Urban Spectator: American Concept-Cities from Kodak to Google (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010).

[11] Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design since 1880, 4th ed. (John Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).

[12] Martin Heidegger, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” in Basic Writings, 2nd rev. and expanded ed., ed. David Farrell Krell (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 322. 

[13] J.D. Tucille, “Why Spy on Everybody? Because ‘You Need the Haystack To Find the Needle,’ Says NSA Chief,” Reason, July 19, 2013, https://reason.com/2013/07/19/why-spy-on-everybody-because-you-need-th/.

[14] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1977), 220.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2017), 70-85.

[17] Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1994).

[18] Mark Weiser, “The computer for the 21st century,” Mobile Computing and Communications Review 3, no. 3 (1999), 3.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Matthew Chalmers and Areti Galani, “Seamful Interweaving: Heterogeneity in the Theory and Design of Interactive Systems,” in Proceedings of the 5th Conference on Designing Interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, and Techniques, 243-252 (New York, NY: ACM, 2004).

[21] Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public culture 14, no. 1 (2002): 90.

[22] Nancy Fraser,  “Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy,” in Between Borders: Pedagogy and the Politics of Cultural Studies, ed. Henry A. Giroux and Peter McLaren (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[23] About the Hudson Yards, see also the essay by Mattern et al. in this volume.

[24] Shannon Mattern, “Instrumental City: The View from Hudson Yards, circa 2019,” Places Journal (April 2016), https://doi.org/10.22269/160426. 

[25] Constantine E. Kontokosta, “The Quantified Community and Neighborhood Labs: A Framework for Computational Urban Science and Civic Technology Innovation,” Journal of Urban Technology 23, no. 4 (2016): 81.

[26] Mattern, “Instrumental City.”

[27] Katherine Clarke, “WHOOSH: Hudson Yards Waste will exit by Pneumatic Tube,” NY Daily News, June 27, 2014, https://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/real-estate/trash-handled-pneumatic-tube-hudson-yards-article-1.1846588.

[28] Mattern, “Instrumental City.”

[29] Clarke, “WHOOSH: Hudson Yards Waste will exit by Pneumatic Tube.”

[30] Hudson Yards New York. “Live, Shop, Work & Dine in New York,” accessed May 4, 2019, http://www.hudsonyardsnewyork.com/

[31] Kontokosta, “The Quantified Community and Neighborhood Labs,” 69.

[32] Dietmar Offenhuber and Carlo Ratti, Waste is Information: Infrastructure Legibility and Governance (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 2017).

[33] Hudson Yards New York, “Ten Hudson Yards Designated Leed Platinum,” press release, January 2, 2018, https://www.hudsonyardsnewyork.com/press-media/press-releases/ten-hudson-yards-designated-leed-platinum.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Kontokosta, “The Quantified Community and Neighborhood Labs,” 68. 

[36] Mattern, “Instrumental City,” 8.

[37] Constantine E. Kontokosta, Nicholas Johnson and Anthony Schloss, “The Quantified Community at Red Hook: Urban Sensing and Citizen Science in Low-Income Neighborhoods” (2016), arXiv preprint, arXiv:1609.08780. 

[38] Kontokosta, “The Quantified Community and Neighborhood Labs,” 68.

[39] Carolyn Hassan and Mara Balestrini, “The Bristol Approach to Citizen Sensing: Dampbusters’ Public Policies for Commons Collaborative Economies and the Experience of Bristol City,” whitepaper published on project website, 2015, https://kwmc.org.uk/projects/bristolapproach/. 

[40] Hassan and Balestrini, “The Bristol Approach to Citizen Sensing.”

[41] Knowle West Media Centre, The Bristol Approach in Action, August 2016,  https://issuu.com/knowlewestmedia/docs/bristol_approach_booklet_issu.

[42] Knowle West Media Centre, The Bristol Approach in Action.

[43] Hassan and Balestrini, “The Bristol Approach to Citizen Sensing.”

[44] Marc Steen, “Co-design as a process of joint inquiry and imagination,” Design Issues 29, no. 2 (2013): 16-28.

[45] Eric Gordon and Stephen Walter, “Meaningful Inefficiencies: Resisting the Logic of Technological Efficiency in the Design of Civic Systems,” in Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice, eds. Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 243.

[46] M. Balestrini et al., “IoT Community Technologies: Leaving Users to Their Own Devices or Orchestration of Engagement?” EAI Endorsed Transactions on the Internet of Things 1, no. 1 (October 2015): 1–11, doi:10.4108/eai.26-10-2015.150601.

[47] Balestrini et al. “IoT Community Technologies.”

[48] Balestrini et al. “IoT Community Technologies.”

[49] Offenhuber and Ratti, Waste is Information.

[50] City of Boston, “Boston Smart City Playbook,” accessed May 31, 2019, https://monum.github.io/playbook/.

[51] Gordon and Walter, “Meaningful Inefficiencies.”

[52] Mark Purcell, “The City Is Ours (If We Decide It Is),” in Our Digital Rights To the City, eds. Mark Graham and Joe Shaw (Meatspace Press, 2017), 32.

[53] Detroit Digital Justice Coalition and Detroit Community Technology Project, “Equitable Open Data Report,” 2017, https://datajustice.github.io/report/.

[54] Rob Kitchin, “Grounding Urban Data: Interview with Rob Kitchin,” New Geographies 7 (2015): 109-116.

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