Technology as a tool to advance democracy.

I reorganized all the notes I have taken during the summer school due to point out the most important findings for me and my research field. The key insights I want to share with you within this document as I see them as a part of my reflections.

Regaining Importance of Place and Space Within Digitalism

During the lectures, seminars, field trips and discussions I have got the feeling that a new strengthening of place and space can be observed. For two centuries, the dystopian idea of place, which will lose its importance by virtuality, was quite popular. Currently various concepts of partly digitalized cities like the smart, digital, knowledge or intelligent have been realized. In this course, it is seen that although these concepts manifest themselves in a virtual plane, they are also geographically distributed over the urban space. Furthermore, the digital world has the power to form communities of interests and therefore creates possibilities to e.g. interconnect formerly anonymous neighbors by their everyday experiences. In this way, there is rather a new significance of place, because design, quality, formal and informal branding, authenticity and reputation helps to create the acceptance of the population in face of new city concepts. The materiality of urbanity, is the key element of raising the reputation of city concepts like the smart city, because they are able to improve a citizen’s life. Information and communication is not necessarily in need of place, but the result of discursive acting needs a ground to take place (Whatmore 2006).

Technological Co-production if Society through Infrastructure

As I am a great fan of the sociologist A. Giddens and the human geographer B. Werlen, I follow their thesis that the society and spatial design have a deep interrelation (Giddens 1984; Werlen 2008). As there is an incorporation of technological infrastructure, a perception change of space by virtuality as well as data as a new source of information about our physical and psychological behaviors, I do not doubt any influence of technology on our society. I am dealing with technology as a layer of space, thus shaping society permanently. Here it becomes clear that a deeply ethical examination with the future society within a digital age is necessary. This examination need to cover several socio-spatial topics, like e.g. the effects of data selection by algorithms, which is leaving us in our own filter bubble, not delivering a bigger picture. We must speak about the behavioral etiquette within virtual space and if this has effects on reality and if forms of outrage are automatically taken to the streets. We should discuss the possibilities of empowering people independently from where there are located by online education. We also must examine the evidences of the so called digital divide, which stands for a new inequality caused by neoliberalist visions of virtual space, which leads to a further manifestation of racist, sexist and so on reproduction in technological tools (Van Dijk 2005).

Technology as a Tool to Advance Democracy

The smart city concept is currently mostly a label and at the same time a reason for a reorganized urban space (Ryser 2014). Frequently the smart and other adjectified cities are seen as a post-political urban space, because of the neoliberal intention of being a competitive city and to be attractive for investments. Also the tries to find economic driven, technological solutions for social are contributing to apperception of urban space as something post-political (Hollands 2008). By clearing up virtual space, the internet, technology itself or collecting data is neither independent nor neutral. They are reproducing already existing power structures. As ICT can be (ab)used, it should be possible to deal with technology as a tool to democratize society. It should be one of the biggest tasks of socially conscious research, dealing with urban space in a broader sense, to pull cities out of their position as post-political test labs and selling products. The new socio-spatial dimension of ICT offers a lot possibilities for new creativity, social struggle, radical democracy. Technology is an infrastructure which can be populated by everyone’s ideas for future scenario. Let’s change the perception of a smart city to a technology driven, urban platform for social change. Let’s see smart as a new form of improving equity by ICT-infrastructures and their interplay with social claims (Hollands 2015).

Further Research Steps

There is a strong penchant to problematize but also criticize any kind of developments in society. It is always good to question apparent rules, values and other standards. They need to be challenged in order to start rethinking processes and further encourages creative and innovative solution findings (see: https://solutions.thischangeseverything.org/). Within the smart city debate we got somehow stuck in a state of critique, even though communication also throughout technologies is one of the key features and the best tool of democratic exits out of messy scenarios. We as humans become social by communication. As technology carries out communication we can define it also as social. ICT therefore is able to meet human needs:

‘We’re working together to develop one or more «pattern languages» which can help people think about, design, develop, manage and use information and communication systems that more fully meet human needs now — and in the future’ (Public Sphere Project 2011)

With a pattern language it is possible to promote and encourage ‘people to work together to address problems efficiently and equitably’ (Schuler 2016). New urban challenges like climate change, environmental destruction and overpopulation, are quantitatively and qualitatively unlikely to be addressed satisfactorily by government and other leaders without substantial citizen engagement. One form of engagement of citizens is achieved by civic intelligence, which can be applied from the local to the global level and anywhere in between. An university can serve as an anchor for engagement of citizens and civic intelligent. It is educating people, connects a lot of knowledge over long-term though, it should serve as a neutral partner. Therefore, a university has two main tasks to promote civic engagement:

  • Connecting (dealing with different stakeholders, e.g. NGOs, municipal politics, municipal administration, companies, other research institutes)
  • Collecting (collecting, mapping and cataloguing best practice methods and tools based on empirical research with the help of group discussions, interviews and questionnaires)

In this way, a further research should deal with practices, methods and tools of participative engagement in several local socio-spatial environments. It would be interesting and useful to catalogue the methods used in different scenarios. At the same time, we should be aware that there is not something like a good method, but there are methods which definitely do not work in several situations and at least this kind of knowledge should be shared. After creating a database, the research results can be mapped and expanded by any person, who like to contribute this radical share of best practices.

Invitation to a Long-Term Discussion and Exchange

I would love to start a sustainable and long-term discussion with my more or less idealistic ideas of a further research. We should discuss the possibilities to engage people into societal design and support them. Once we are an international group of young and aware experts, we should start an exchange process of ideas, methods, tools, experiences and challenges. ICT serves as an infrastructure, we all can populate with our visions for an ecological sustainable, economic and political fair and equal society. The questions, I still have in mind and I like to be discussed

  • How to keep an university as an anchor questioned, without blocking researches?
  • Can role models work in plenty of cities?
  • How to save a method map from companies overtake?

This is a fight back of neoliberal capitalism by forms of collaboration. It can also avoid the takeover by conservative, authoritan voices throughout Europe and Northern America. Having the possibility of choosing a working solution, which was already practice can help reduce all forms of discrimination. It will be hard and sometimes to be long-lasting and sustainable within a fragmented and individualized society, but this is a step towards creating an (academic) resistance against inhuman societies.

References

Giddens, A. (1984): The Constitution of Society. Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Oxford: Polity Press.

Hollands, R. G. (2008): Will the real smart city please stand up? In: City 12 (3): 303–320.

Hollands, R. G. (2015). Critical interventions into the corporate smart city. In: Cambridge Journal of Regions, Econ.& Soc. 8 (1): 61–77.

Public Sphere Project (2011): Liberating Voices! A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution. Online: http://www.publicsphereproject.org/patterns/

Ryser, J. (2014): Planning Smart Cities…Sustainable, Healthy, Livable, Creative Cities…or Just Planning? In: dérive-Zeitschrift für Stadtforschung (56): 10–18.

Schuler, D. (2016): How civic intelligence can teach what it means to be a citizen. Online: https://theconversation.com/how-civic-intelligence-can-teach-what-it-means-to-be-a-citizen-63170).

Van Dijk, Jan (2005): The Deepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Werlen, B. (2008): „Sozialgeographie.“, Bern, Stuttgart: Haupt Verlag.

Whatmore, S. (2006): Materialist returns: practising cultural geography in and for a more-than-human world. In: Cultural Geographies, 13 (4): 600–609.