Ulysses Workshop “Reshaping Cities through Data and Experiments” – Introduction

[This text is the introduction to the "Reshaping Cities through Data and Experiments" workshop held in Maynooth University, 30th of May, which was the first part of an Ulysses research exchange between researchers from the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation (i3-CSI) at the École des Mines in Paris, and the researchers from MUSSI-NIRSA in Maynooth University, Ireland. UPDATE: The videos of the presentations are now available as the following separate posts: session 1, session 2, session 3]

Introduction: Why smart cities, why data and experiments

Claudio

Our aim is to advance the understanding of the contemporary cities in relation to urban data and experimentation, creating a link between “The Programmable City” (Maynooth) and “City Experiments” (“CitEx”, Paris). In particular, we want to initiate a transdisciplinary discussion on the theoretical, methodological and empirical issues related to experimental and data-driven approaches to urban development and living. This conversation is vital in a time when cities all over the world – from Singapore to San Francisco, Medellin and Dublin, as we shall see – are increasingly turning into public-private testbeds and living labs, where urban development projects merge with the design of cyber-infrastructures to test new services and new forms of engagement for urban innovation and economic development. These new forms of interaction between algorithms, planning practices and governance processes raise crucial questions for researchers on how everyday life, civic engagement and urban change are shaped in contemporary cities. Our approach is to study smart cities as the unstable and uncertain product of ongoing interactions of data and experiments.

There is a pragmatic reason, indeed. In many cases, being responsible for tax payer’s money, city administrations need to spend their budget very carefully while thinking about possible futures. It brings us to a problem of skills, knowledge and expertise: what do the public bodies know about available technologies and state of the art? How to procure them? How to test them? Once procured and tested, how to know that the adoption of a specific technology would work in the actual urban settings? Which knowledge do data allow and shadow? How to maintain the rolled out service in time?

Thus, experimentation and data become a way to engage with new actors, with new kinds of expertise and skills that enter into the public so as to test projects before committing to large scale rolling out.

But the pragmatic reason is deeply connected with a theoretical and methodological one. Sociologists of science and technology use to saying that the laboratory is now the world: it does not mean that the world should be treated as a mere copy of a laboratory. Rather, it is an invite to expand and unfold the idea of laboratory from an organizational, technical and political perspective. In terms of the smart city discourse, it involves at least three intertwined issues. There is a problem related to the organizational processes and rationalities (how data and experiments interact with organizational change), there is a problem related to technological rationalities (data and experiments are not neutral), and there is a problem related to political rationalities (which are the implication for democracy), all combined and making the smart city discourse complex and undetermined.

Experiments represents a unique place of encounter between theory and practice, which allow us to observe smart urbanism in the actual making, looking at the dynamic apparatus of practices, infrastructures, knowledge, narratives, bodies, etc. and to possibly try distinguish between good ways to combine data and experiment and bad ways to combine data and experiments.

This is where our work in Maynooth University and in the Programmable City project on big data assemblages (Kitchin 2014), algorithmic governance (Coletta and Kitchin 2017), smart city development processes (Coletta, Heaphy and Kitchin 2017), hacktivism and civic engagement (Perng and Kitchin 2016) matches the work that David and his colleagues are doing at CSI.

David

I shall start with a remark: compared to what has been done by colleagues here, at MUSSI-NIRSA in Maynooth, about cities and data, we actually did a very few. Actually, we have been involved in projects on cities and urban settings only recently. As you might know, the CSI is well known in science and technology studies (STS), especially for its contribution to the early laboratory studies. And our CitEx project clearly draws on this background, notably what we consider as two important results.

In Laboratory Life, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1979) examined in minute details scientists working at the bench, performing experiments, discussing results, and writing publications. What is interesting for us here is to consider the laboratory as a peculiar place, both as a controlled environment configured to conduct experiments and to envision their replication and dissemination, and a site designed to elaborate new knowledge and to perform some demonstrations. Yet the laboratory is not the only significant site to be investigated. As Michel Callon and his colleagues (1988) clearly emphasized in La science et ses réseaux, scientific facts would be nothing without the crucial part heterogeneous networks take place in their production and dissemination. What we learned here is the various ways in which the results of experiments are not only tightly linked to economic networks, but also contribute to perform some political orderings. To put it roughly, these are the two main arguments on scientific experiments we started with to elaborate our CitEx project; these are our basics, so to speak.

This being said, some works on city and urban settings have already taken place at the CSI, and they directly inspire our ongoing CitEx project. Obviously, the book Paris, the invisible city (Latour and Hermant 1996), which is focused on the heterogeneous infrastructures that make Paris works and stands as a city on a daily basis, is particularly relevant in this regard. Contemporary experiments in urban settings are based on exiting infrastructures, dedicated to urban mobility or to data processing and storage, or to both — as it is often the case. The study of subway signs in Paris as an immobile informational infrastructure designed and maintained everyday in order to ease riders fluidity is particularly telling: by shaping both some users’ positions and some particular conditions of a public space, subway signs participate in the enactment of a specific political ordering (Denis and Pontille 2010). But some experiments may also be focused on the infrastructure itself. This is what we investigated more recently, examining the introduction a fleet of 50 electric cars as part of a car-sharing system without fixed stations (Laurent and Tironi 2015). Not only sociotechnical instruments were mobilized to explore social and technical uncertainties and to produce public demonstrations, but also what was actually tested eventually changed during the project.

The CitEx project has been elaborated at the crossroad of STS and Urban studies because, we argue, experiments are a stimulating research site. Tightly coupled with the production and use of data, experiments constitute a particular entry point to explore how part of contemporary cities are currently constituted as laboratories to test various new technologies and infrastructures, as well as forms of urban assemblages and modes of government.

This is why we believe the collaboration with Claudio and his colleagues involved in “the programmable city” project will be fruitful and stimulating.

Claudio Coletta and David Pontille

Acknowledgement

We are grateful to the IRC, Ambassade de France in Ireland and the Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute for their generous support and for making possible this event.

References:

Callon M (1989) La science et ses réseaux: genèse et circulation des faits scientifiques. Éditions La Découverte.

Coletta C and Kitchin R (In press) Algorhythmic governance: Regulating the ‘heartbeat’of a city using the Internet of Things, Big Data and Society, Special Issue on “Algorithms in Culture”. Pre-print available at https://osf.io/bp7c4/

Coletta, C., Heaphy, L. and Kitchin, R. (2017) From the accidental to articulated smart city: The creation and work of ‘Smart Dublin’. Programmable City Working Paper 29 https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/93ga5

Denis J and Pontille D (2010). The Graphical Performation of a Public Space. The Subway Signs and their Scripts, in G. Sonda, C. Coletta, F. Gabbi (eds.) Urban Plots, Organizing Cities. Ashgate, pp. 11-22.

Kitchin R (2014) The data revolution: Big data, open data, data infrastructures and their consequences. Sage.

Laurent B and Tironi M (2015) A field test and its displacements. Accounting for an experimental mode of industrial innovation. CoDesign 11(3–4): 208–221.

Latour B and Woolgar S (1986) Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton University Press.

Latour B and Hermant E (1998) Paris: Ville Invisible. Éditions La Découverte.

Perng SY and Kitchin R (2016, online first) Solutions and frictions in civic hacking: Collaboratively designing and building a queuing app for an immigration office. Social and Cultural Geography.

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