Critical thinking on smartness, service providing and technology: YA sessions at UTC Palermo

Guest author: Dezsö Vajtho, Utrecht University, MSc Sustainable Development (LinkedIN).

This post is a report from the two sessions organized by the AESOP Young Academics network during the Urban Thinker Campus, an event organzed by PUSH, included in the World Urban Campaign of UN Habitat (Palermo, 8-10 October 2015).

Session 1: Smart cities, service providing and urban policies/politics

This first session has been devoted to the relationship between urban policies/politics and issues of service providing, under the umbrella of the discursive framework of the so-called “Smart City” (from now on SC).

The first contribution by Dezsö Vajtho and Mendel Giezen from the Utrecht University, The Netherlands, critically introduced and discussed the concept of SC in relation to issues of social sustainability. The main points done regarded: 1) the limitation of the SC concept characterised by definitional vagueness, 2) the bias toward a technocratic approach mainly concerned with issues of competitiveness and energy efficiency, 3) its relation to broader societal dynamics, primarily the move towards a “knowledge society”, and 4) the centrality of social innovation rooted in the specifics of a certain locale as a mean to fight social inequalities in SCs, in particular technological illiteracy.

The second presentation by Fabio Iapaolo from the University of Lisbon, Portugal, focused on the “gamification” of everyday life, that is the use of game thinking and design in non-playful contexts as a tool to digitally promote learning and behavioural change in people. Seen as a way to improve the awareness of people through self-tracking, arguably this approach applies entrepreneurial thinking to the management of one’s daily life, directing it toward a greater efficiency in terms of time and cost-benefit gains, and avoiding structural solutions. Further, gamification raises issues related to privacy, self-surveillance, and peer-pressure, due to the great amount of personal data disclosed.

The last three contributions all dealt with the Indian context. Specifically, the presentation by Taru Jain from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, India, discussed the Indian approach to SC and related challenges, while the presentation by Mahak Agrawal from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, India, and the one by Angela Oberg from the Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA, were focused on the solutions proposed to the problem of sanitation deprivation and open defecation.

Taru Jain presented the “Smart Cities Project”, recently announced by the Indian government, which aims at building new cities and retrofit existing ones through hi-tech infrastructural solutions borrowed from developed countries. Seen that much of India is confronted with lack of basic services and facilities, the Indian government seems to overestimate the potential benefits deriving from technologically based interventions, thus underestimating the negative impacts they could have in reproducing existing social inequalities. A better understanding of Indian particularities, and the identification of priority issues, among others, could help in overcoming present shortcomings.

Mahak Agrawal pointed out in her contribution the strict linkage between urban planning practices and the pressing problem of open defecation in India, stressing the inadequacy of the solutions currently proposed (i.e. Smart Cities Project). The deployment of technologies to develop affordable and site specific sanitation services, in order to eradicate open defecation and its negative externalities, should be envisaged within solutions ensuring the equitable access to adequate sanitation. In this respect, collaboration between local level governmental agencies and the target population is recognised as paramount.

Angela Oberg presented her findings regarding a case study of the political economy of sewage in the city of Agra, with the aim of questioning our current understanding of the problem of human waste and its proposed solutions. Particularly stressed is the leading contribution to the problem at hand caused by a turn away of governmental agencies from service delivery to an almost exclusive focus on infrastructure construction. In this respect, issues of urban sewage demand considerations beyond the “hardware”, to include systems of governance, morphology of the city, and community dynamics.

Overall, the contributions in this session highlighted the following elements:

  1. the predominant approach to “smartness” focuses mainly on technical and infrastructural solutions, with a tendency to shift a lot of the responsibility for their effectiveness to the individual;

  1. little attention is given to human and social engineering, traditional “checks and balances”, and the particularities of locales;

  1. an entrepreneurial attitude is promoted, with a focus on efficiency gains inside the current system and its constraints, without a push toward actual reforms/structural solutions;

  1. there is a need to re-frame the role of governmental agencies, and the role of citizens (see below).

Session 2: Informality and bottom-up organization in the age of technology

This second session was concerned with the relationship between technology (and especially ICTs), bottom-up organisation, radical practices in informal settings and urbanisation.

The first presentation was given by David Behar from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, and dealt with public space surveillance in the age of big data, and the Lefebvrian concept of “the right to the city”. The main issues raised related to the exclusive management of surveillance, and connected security matters, by municipal and state authorities. This exclusive management, a part from raising complex questions about privacy, results in a dispossession of citizens’ rights and duties toward their urban environment, undermining democratic values. The involvement and participation of communities in decision making and acting of public space surveillance should be promoted as a possible solution.

The second presentation was given by Michele Vianello from the International Balkan University in Skopje, Macedonia (FYROM) (the work is co-authored with Leonora Grcheva, from UN Habitat), who introduced a project dealing with the transfer of community mapping techniques for informal settlements from an African context, namely Nairobi, Kenya, to an European context, namely Skopje. The central argument stressed the critical role of bottom-up data collection and sharing, as means of effective community mobilisation for the upgrade of informal settlements and the formalisation of land tenure.

The third contribution was made by Anthony Boanada Fuchs from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and by Vanessa Boanada Fuchs from the University of St.Gallen, Switzerland. This presentation examined the relation between urban informality, knowledge production, and future paths of sustainable urban development in the Global South. The main argument done was that urban issues of the Global South should be framed without using discourse and practices applied in the Global North, in order to explore the actual possibilities and limitations of cities in the move toward more equitable and comprehensive service providers. In particular, cities should strive for the inclusion of urban informality into their planning and administration, avoiding the creation of (digital) knowledge monopolies.

Overall, the contributions in this session highlighted the following elements:

  1. the ownership of data and knowledge-creation as main issues when talking about an equitable, liveable and sustainable way of steering societal change through ICTs;

  1. the importance of community-based data generation, data gathering and data ownership as means of democratic empowerment;

  1. the role of academics, which should be favouring community-based empowerment through assistance in data elaboration, and knowledge dissemination across communities/places;

  1. the role of governmental agencies, which should be supporting community-based steering through the promotion of data openness, the coordination between communities, and the assurance of the respect of (democratic) rules.

Bio: Dezsö Vajtho, born in 1990 in Trieste, Italy, in 2013 graduated in the bachelor of Political Sciences and International Relations at the University of Siena, Italy. He’s currently student at the MSc Sustainable Development, track Environmental governance, at the Utrecht University Interested in new governance models, he focuses his attention on issues of social exclusion/inclusion, and on the application of an ecological perspective on social systems.​

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One Response to Critical thinking on smartness, service providing and technology: YA sessions at UTC Palermo

  1. Pingback: Highlights from 2015 | AESOP Young Academics

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