Engaging the Idiot in Participatory Digital Urbanism
ALONGSIDE PROPOSALS for smart and sustainable cities, a number of DIY and participatory urbanism projects use digital technologies to generate new modes of urban engagement. As discussed in the last chapter, urban infrastructures are increasingly embedded with computational sensor technologies that are intended to automate urban processes and facilitate urban efficiencies. From tracking transport journeys and updating bus arrival times to traffic cameras and cycle-hire schemes—as well as monitoring air and water quality, river and sea levels, energy use, and waste—urban infrastructures, services, and functions are being remade or newly introduced through the sensor-actuator exchanges of digital urbanism. However, these developments are not just about the automation of urban life at the infrastructural level: they also include collecting new forms of input from citizens engaged in participatory sensing. Such smart city developments in-form modes of urban engagement through interaction with sensor technologies, smart phones, digital devices, apps, and platforms that are meant to coactivate urban functions.
Figure 8.1. TechniCity MOOC, student contribution of video analytics for detecting urban events for crowd and public-space management. Screen capture
This chapter considers in more detail the participatory urbanism and sensing projects that are underway or have been prototyped, as well as the broader context of the literature, training, courses, and gatherings that are essential to learning how to become a contributing citizen in this participatory urbanism framework. From web- and app-based social media initiatives such as SeeClickFix (United States) and FixMyStreet (UK) that enable urban dwellers to crowdsource and report on urban infrastructure in need of repair to civic apps that are meant to facilitate access to government services, a range of citizen-sensing initiatives now encourage urban engagement through digital devices, platforms, and infrastructures.1 Often referred to as practices of DIY, participatory, or open-source urbanism, these modes of participation contribute to the development of what is meant to facilitate digitally improved functionalities and experiences within contemporary and anticipated cities.
As discussed in the last chapter, participatory urbanism projects are a necessary response to and development within smart cities proposals. Digital imaginaries for increased participation are often continuous with the sorts of exchanges that smart cities would enable, since interaction requires the use of smart phones, data collection, monitoring platforms, and assorted devices and tools that are meant to facilitate participation. Sensor-based and digitally enabled modes of DIY and participatory urbanism have been proposed as grassroots strategies for articulating new types of commons and democratic urban participation, as well as strategies integral to smart city development proposals. By focusing specifically on the use of citizen-sensing applications for environmental monitoring and urban sustainability, I analyze the distinct modes of participation and urbanism that are expressed in these projects. Two questions that I address in this chapter include: How do citizens become sensors in participatory digital-urbanism projects? And how are cities cast as computable problems so that sensing citizens can act upon them? The first question considers the specific capacities of citizens and publics that are operationalized through digital practices dependent upon urban environmental sensors. In other words, what types of urban participation do projects such as updatable maps for street repairs, air quality sensors, or platforms for tree planting activate or enable? The second question continues discussions from the last chapter and is attuned to the ways in which urban problems are broken into computable tasks.2 So this question further asks: When addressing the “problem of the city,” which modalities of urban politics are potentially made more problematic? And what other practices might be created through an approach that specifically seeks to trouble the dynamics of DIY digital urbanisms?
While the smart city is often broadly identified as a combination of networks and sensors, this hardware-software view of the smart city leaves unexamined the types of participation that might unfold within these new or revised urban settings. An implicit assumption within many digital-urbanism proposals and projects is that urban participants will engage with programs of participation as planned—that they will become an extension of computational logics and exchanges and will readily perform as citizen sensors and citizen actuators. I examine the ways in which participation is articulated within digital- and participatory-urbanism projects. But I further focus on the ways in which participation does not always unfold as expected, and may even be a site of disruption—intentional or otherwise. The ways in which programs of participation do not go according to plan was signaled in the previous chapter on smart cities as a possible site where politics emerge and are invented, where the “rules of the game,” as Foucault puts it, might generate encounters not just with governance as it is planned, but with governance as it is interrupted or rerouted. It is these possible interruptions and reroutings that I take up here.
To advance a discussion of the ways in which participation proliferates beyond the “rules of the game” and, in so doing, provokes political encounters and inhabitations, I take up Stengers’s discussion of cosmopolitics and participation, where she asks how it might be possible to attend to the role of the “idiot,” or those who would typically be seen to have nothing to contribute to the “common account” of how to approach political problems.3 In her proposal, the idiot challenges a notion of participation and politics that easily settles into consensus. This is not the idiot as a simplistic form of insult—as in a dumb or stupid citizen, the simple counterpart to the smartness of the smart city. Instead, the idiot or the idiotic is someone or something that causes us to think about and encounter the complexities of participation and social life as something other than prescribed or settled.
Stengers draws on Deleuze’s conceptual persona of the idiot to consider how the idiot “slows the others down” specifically by resisting “the consensual way in which the situation is presented and in which emergencies mobilize thought or action.”4 Resistance here is not a matter of searching after what is true or false, but rather is a way of attempting to reroute what counts as important. But this is not a strategy for trading one agenda for another, since the cosmos- within the cosmopolitical is an “interstice,” following Whitehead—a space of unknowing “constituted by these multiple, divergent worlds and to the articulations of which they could eventually be capable.”5 Such spaces and engagements characterized by unknowing and divergence mean that which counts as “political” can never be assumed or finalized. As Stengers outlines, the idiot captures not the “common good” or cosmopolitanism of Kant, but rather signals toward cosmopolitical registers of hesitation and uncertainty, as well as the generative political encounters that can arise from such uncertainty.6
A growing body of literature deploys the idiot as a figure and process of engagement.7 Adopting Stengers’s elaboration on the idiot, Mike Michael discusses the patterns of “overspill” and typologies of misbehavior that might typically be disregarded by social scientists attempting to facilitate and study public engagement. Absence, incapacity, refusal, disruption, distraction, and irony are examples of ways in which participation does not unfold according to researchers’ plans, but instead irrupts through various idiotic registers that transform the agenda and outcomes of participation.8 While other discussions of the idiot variously focus on processes of individuation and the making of subjects in relation to new media,9 my use of the idiot in this discussion of participation in the smart city engages most centrally with Stengers’s version of the idiot as a figure that cannot be articulated through a fixed subject position, not even if it is one of inversion. Instead, the idiot as understood here is a troubling and transformative agent within participatory processes who cannot or will not abide by the terms of participation that are meant to facilitate and enhance democratic engagement.
Using Stengers’s figure of the “idiot,” which has further resonances with forms of non- or sub-citizenship as understood through the Greek definition of the idiot as a noncitizen or private individual, I suggest that disruptive, confused, and thwarted actions fall outside of the usual delineations of what counts as participatory digital urbanism. The becoming environmental of computation in relation to participatory urbanism then involves the ways in which these programs do not go according to plan. In addition, seemingly illegitimate contributions challenge us to consider how cities hold together and unfold as sites of political engagement, how participants often contribute as disruptive agents, and how sensor-based digital technologies, platforms, and networks organize participation (as well as inclusion and exclusion) in the city, whether smart or otherwise.
After first reviewing the rise of civic apps and platforms, I turn to discuss a range of both practical and theoretical approaches to digital participatory urbanism and draw out a discussion of how participation unfolds and to what a/effect. I then discuss in more detail two specific examples of participatory urbanism. I first address the ways in which digital and participatory citizens are often in need of training in order to be able to operate within digital cities and through digital exchanges as “smart” citizens. A number of smart city training opportunities exist in courses and events. Through an account of my experience as a student on a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on smart cities, I discuss the ways in which students were instructed to learn about and participate in the smart city, including a task to crowdsource examples of urban sensors for a course forum. I focus specifically on the ways in which departures from this participatory platform occurred and how these departures potentially sparked specific types of idiotic encounters in attempting to understand how sensors influence cities and citizenship.
From this example, I then discuss a second example of FixMyStreet, a UK-based platform that allows citizens to identify and report problems with street spaces. In my discussion of this platform, I am interested to consider both what a street becomes when it is the focus of efforts to fix it, such as reporting potholes and illegally dumped rubbish, and also what modes and task flows of citizenship and participation are enabled or fall outside the boundaries of legitimate participation. FixMyStreet relies on particular types of citizen-led reporting, most often undertaken through that composite sensor-apparatus of the smartphone. But it also captures multiple instances of grievances logged that cannot be easily dealt with through this platform. Such “reports” might be considered idiotic, since they slow down the assumed ways in which citizens are meant to participate in maintaining streets and instead raise open-ended questions and complaints that re-veal how many types of street-based concerns and politics are not easily amenable to “fixing.”
From these two examples and the modes of participation that they activate, I ask how the figure of the idiot may provoke different approaches to thinking about and creating participation in the digitally equipped and sensor-based city. Many current projects and proposals for smart cities and digital participation assume versions of politics and citizenship that are relatively untroubled and solution-oriented. Citizens need only train up and gain capacities in order to contribute to digitally enabled urban processes. With access to the latest sensor-based platforms and infrastructures, new levels of citizen-to-citizen, citizen-to-government, and citizen-to-city interaction are assumed to unfold. But the idiot troubles these communicative and political arrangements. It instead indicates how computational approaches to cities, citizenship, and politics may give rise to a faltering and hesitating set of practices that do not advance an unproblematic approach to participation, but rather throw it into question.
Participatory Urban Actions
An extensive list of applications and platforms could be made of projects that are variously situated in the area of participatory, open-source, and DIY digital urbanisms. From Code for America to the New Urban Mechanics with their Adopt-a-Hydrant scheme, as well as FixMyStreet, CitySourced, Maker Cities, and Urban Prototyping, a number of projects fuse participation with sensors, apps, infrastructure, devices, software, events, and even manifestoes to articulate and put in motion a 2.0 version of urban citizenship. In the course of reviewing this developing area of practices, I have trawled through websites and used apps that would make me more civic and participatory, and I have visited “meetup” events, as well as signed up for online training sessions in the form of MOOCs and webinars, taken participation surveys, and attended tech demonstrations, hackathons, and fairs. Participatory applications and initiatives have in many ways settled into these formats, where an emphasis is placed on co-creating technologies and services in settings where there is a relatively high enthusiasm for the possibilities of new technologies but often a relatively underexamined approach to what counts as participation and what types of urban politics are activated through these digital engagements.
While I focus here on digital and sensor-based modes of participatory urbanism, it also bears mentioning that there is a long-standing tradition of participatory urbanism projects that span art, architecture, design, and feminist politics. There has been a recent resurgence of these projects that is somewhat parallel if distinct from digital participatory urbanisms. These projects include the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s exhibition and catalogue, Actions: What You Can Do with the City, the Spontaneous Interventions United States pavilion at the 2012 Venice Biennale, and work by creative practitioners such as L’atelier d’architecture autogérée (aaa) and Public Works that focus on creating urban contexts for citizen- and community-led transformation and use of spaces.10 In another way, many participatory urbanism projects that are not sensor-based often adopt computational metaphors and platforms to describe and organize practices, from Wikicity to Tactical Urbanism,11 where digital networks and commons are established as tools for achieving greater urban participation. It is then worth noting that there is a much wider stream of participatory urbanism projects underway that runs alongside and at times mutually influences or diverges from sensor-driven approaches to cities.
Similar to this wider context of participatory urbanism projects, many digital participatory urban initiatives have developed through a stated concern with civic responsibility and through an interest in remaking government “from below.” Code for America (of which there are regional chapters, as well as a similar but nonaffiliated European version, Code for Europe) is a project established in 2010 that made fellowships available for coders to develop civic-minded software freely available through the software repository GitHub, as well as platforms to encourage greater participation in urban life. The rationale for these projects is that if the urban-computational “system” is put together in the best way, then government may run more efficiently and better address the needs and concerns of citizens.12 Projects that have developed through the Code for America initiative include an Adopt-a-Hydrant platform that was developed in collaboration with the New Urban Mechanics and prototyped in Boston in 2012. With this platform, members of the public could locate a nearby hydrant, identify the hydrant on a map, and adopt and take responsibility for clearing away snow when the hydrant became buried in winter snow storms. This platform was adapted to several other applications, including Adopt-a-Siren for maintaining tsunami sirens in Hawaii and Adopt-a-Storm Drain for clearing drains. From hydrants to potholes, parking spaces, and animal services, within these projects there is an attention to the mundane and even “bureaucratic” role of governance. Code for America seeks to take up and transform the bureaucratic aspects of governance through code, apps, and platforms, hackathons, GitHub repositories, and open data. Infrastructure is “adopted” in order to maintain it. Data are harvested in order to compare understandings of air pollution and exposure. Coding is undertaken in order to achieve new efficiencies. And citizens participate through computational registers that reroute the practices and responsibilities of local government—where citizens shift from agents with “voices” to agents with “hands.”13 Coding, and the hands that would undertake this practice, are seen as a way to “fix citizenship,” since as Pahlka notes, “We’re not going to fix government until we fix citizenship.”14
“Civic Apps” are a similar area of development, which has at various times been held up as the next vital improvement in urban life and “public services provision.” As noted in its 2013 forecast, the UK-based innovation think tank the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) predicted civic apps would develop rapidly and so shift the ways in which urban participation unfolds. Code for America Commons was identified as one of these examples, “which operates like a community-driven app store to share technology for public good.”15 The solving of urban problems was not the only area Nesta identified as notable for development, since SeeClickFix, for instance, operates by rewarding users with “civic points,” a system that has turned to operate for profit within “thousands of communities.” Through ad and software sales, a civic platform had morphed into a profitable venture, as well as a private service that could be sold back to municipalities in order to manage “customer-response services.”16 Many civic apps are in fact consumer-focused or oriented toward the quantified self and allow urban dwellers to locate the best coffee spots and bars, as well as have better access to cabs or public transit, while monitoring their exposure to air pollution or keeping track of miles walked.17 These are “simple tools” that are meant to aid in “navigating public life and which make it easy to take part in.”18
Civic apps are then productive of new economies and political economies of participation and are not simply articulations of digital and democratic engagement. As Ulises Mejias notes, however, participation in these networks offers up information, but at the same time the user of these platforms becomes “the product being sold,” where participation is “not coercive in a straightforward manner” but is organized to undergird particular economic exchanges and to reinforce particular modes of sociality.19 Participation through these platforms is then most typically aligned with digital economies where user-citizens provide the data-material that often generates profits for tech companies but less frequently contributes to substantive resources for urban communities or citizens. Users and participants of sensor-based digital platforms provide sensor data that influence, if not benefit, particular types of technological and urban economies. Participation in networks requires the free labor of participants, but the networks are owned, controlled, and operated by companies that collect data in ways that are not typically transparent or contributory to advancing more democratic urban engagement or more equitable economies.20
Sensors and sensor data then have effects in the ways in which participation is organized and the uses to which it is put. Participation needs to be organized in order to be activated with and through sensor exchanges that contribute to the amassing of sensor data. A task flow is activated within sensor-based cities that break down participation into executable tasks, thereby making participation a computable problem. Such computational logic may in-form problems of participation with or without sensors, since the task-flow approach to cities may migrate from an application having to do with sensor-regulated traffic flow to a more general method for managing pedestrians.
Participation further unfolds through both active and passive registers. “Participatory sensing” is a term that has variously been used to describe the ways in which people can record environmental phenomena “through sensors built into mobile phones.”21 The sensors in mobile phones, including image, location, sound, direction, and acceleration, have been identified as allowing for participatory and citizen-led modes of sensing that can be used to “record images, motion, and other signals, automatically associating them with location and time.”22 Described as “a new collective capacity” that is developing and that allows for analyzing “invisible” aspects of life, sensors in smartphones are different and yet at times complementary to infrastructural sensors in cities used to organize transport, energy, and more. In fact, sensors in smartphones are often the primary site of interaction and activation for citizen-led participatory sensing. Here, participation in many ways is both facilitated and yet delimited by the capacities of smartphones. Examples of modes of participatory engagement with smartphones then extend to tagged images of community assets, images of safety hazards, apps for travel monitoring, and maps of running routes. As one group of researchers working in this area suggest, “Participatory Sensing’s innovation lies in how people can use today’s technologies to observe, document, and act on issues that matter to them. Participatory Sensing’s potential power comes from the already widespread adoption of the technologies by people across so many demographics.”23
While a clear trajectory is laid out from identifying what to sense, gathering this sensor data, and then moving forward to action, the dynamics of participation within this progression remain somewhat unclear. How will participants first decide where to focus their attentions, and how will they further know how best to document their concerns? And within what context will they be able to make claims or advance actions on the basis of sensor data they have assembled? The more overtly participatory aspects of sensing, in many ways, might remain somewhat gestural, since this is less an exercise of democratic urban citizenship and more a case of citizens participating by becoming sensors in order generate urban data. In this respect, participatory sensing and passive data collection may have more in common than at first suspected. Passive data collection generally entails citizens having to do very little, other than turn on their smartphones or other sensor devices, such as wearables, to collect location data or other environmental details. Participation occurs here in a passive register because it does not require input from the human user and it takes place by users simply being equipped with smartphones, where sensing takes place in background registers without further citizen-based translations into urban engagement.
Within the area of passive data collection, civic apps are also identified by Nesta as enabling new modes of participation, where citizens might contribute to larger data stores through enabling their vehicles to send data about speed bumps, for instance, or by contributing location data or personal health data via smartphones or wearables.24 In these participatory applications, sensor engagements and sensor data are not only located in the urban environment and implanted within infrastructure but also integral to the technologies that people carry such that humans become sensors and actuators, passively facilitating the detection and reporting of urban problems such as potholes. Sensors may be located across infrastructures, smartphones, and vehicles, but what is most striking about participatory and passive modes of sensing is the way in which citizens perform as sensors, such that humans and sensors may even undertake interchangeable functions. Participation is in-formed through these exchanges—not as a technologically determined activity, however, as much as a concretization of urban dwellers, cities, infrastructure, everyday life, sensor devices, databases, big data economies, and emerging practices of civic-ness.
The new entities that concretize through sensor-participation raise the question of whether urban citizens and participation are as much in the prototype stage as sensors. Both the practices that human-users are meant to develop and adapt to, as well as the possibilities for more autonomous sensing devices, can be said to be in development in this urban-computational loop of participation, sensing, data, analytics, and action. What are these new capacities of citizenship and urban politics that are meant to be activated vis-à-vis participatory digital urbanism? As Mark Andrejevic has pointed out, the rise of ubiquitous computing has actually contributed to “a heightened form of passive interaction: the gathering of detailed information in an increasingly unobtrusive manner.”25 Within ubiquitous-computing scenarios, participation unfolds most readily where humans interfere the least with inputs and outputs and where citizens become sensing nodes or perform in ways that are readily computable. Such an approach could be described as making humans “easier to use,” as Trebor Scholz has noted in relation to digital labor.26 But this ease of use does not necessarily clearly indicate new capacities of citizenship.
In these examples, computation and participation coincide in order to enable new modes of citizen engagement, and yet in the process there is a remaking of the processes of participation, cities, and citizenship toward computability. Urban life is articulated through a series of computational problems that can be solved or enhanced through participatory platforms and programs. Citizens achieve participation through using these platforms to perform urban functions (effectively becoming actuators of coded sensor actions), and at a presumably higher level by writing programs in the first place, which code urban life for particular forms of participation. Yet within this range of actions and technologies, participation remains relatively unquestioned as a practice. The ways in which coding, for instance, may facilitate particular types of urban participation are assumed to be positive and unproblematic contributions to urban life. Civic apps are tools for achieving “public life” or the “common good.” As Stengers suggests in relation to the idiot, “The idea is precisely to slow down the construction of this common world, to create a space for hesitation regarding what it means to say ‘good.’”27 Although cities are regularly cast as sites in need of urgent attention, Stengers’s cosmopolitical proposal mobilizes the idiot as an entity that does not deny the “emergency” but at the same time cannot accept the usual ways in which the emergency—here the problem of rapidly growing cities in the face of resource shortage and climate change—has been framed and operationalized.
With the idiot in mind, it then becomes possible to ask in what ways do problem-solving code, reconfigured service economies, and participatory sensing for data collection reshape how participation unfolds? Public life and participation become articulated as data-collection sites and practices, as crowdsourced actions for solving definable problems, and as new business opportunities that emerge from these same ventures. Civic apps attempt to remake and reinvigorate civic-ness by framing urban problems so that they are actionable, and actions are easily performed through smartphones or digital platforms. The program of participation here is not just a means to achieve efficiency but is a way to individually and collectively frame and solve urban problems, whether through simply defined actions or passive contributions of data that would facilitate the management of urban functions. This is the well-known Leibnizian dream of making all problems solvable by rendering them in terms of computation, such that should any dilemmas arise, a clear program may be in place so that one only needs to say: “Let us calculate!”28 But in making urban participation actionable, and by articulating the conditions through which collectives might form and have effect, digital modalities of participation also delineate distinct forms of engagement that break down into tasks, modes of training, and voluntarization of local government services (when in many cases, these services may be under stress due to budget cuts).
The approach to making urban problems computable might be further situated within the growing area of “urban science.”29 Transportation problems, contributions to civic process, and land use are examples of issues that might be best dealt with through gathering, analyzing, and managing data sets otherwise characterized as “big data.” Beyond infrastructures equipped with sensors that contribute to the store of big data, participatory sensing and data collection are also meant to contribute to large datasets that are intended to make cities more efficient and easier to manage. Participation occurs through individual contributions that scale up to aggregate functions, where the action and possibility of participatory sensing is most pronounced when gathered into databases that are mined and managed by distant actors, whether tech companies or city governments. Participation in this sense requires a certain deferral, where one’s contribution of sense data becomes a resource for other urban actors. While participatory sensing is meant to put tools into the “hands of citizens,” in reality most citizens will not have the time or resources to mine data in order to influence urban processes or to effect urban political change.
The contribution that participatory sensing and data collection make to big data might in one way be described through a topological logic of digital infrastructures that Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey discuss as a “faith in small numbers.” As they write, “The effects of small numbers are pressed upon us as exemplars of the instability of global systems and of the power of the individual to effect real social change.”30 Small numbers—and by extension here, the small numbers of participatory sensing that add up to big data—are the operators whereby urban citizens are meant to be able to make change, whether through individual contributions or the collective amassing of data. Possibility occurs through computability, and so sensors at infrastructural and participatory levels are the devices that facilitate the computability and possibility of urban processes. Sensor data that feeds into big data promises to achieve distinct types of functionality and connection through enumeration and processing. Participation through sensor-based devices is then contributing to modes of urban life and urban engagement that are characterized by computability as the register of urban politics and social life.
While the participatory and civic aspects of these apps, platforms, and modes of digital DIY urban engagement differ, they in various ways could be described as projects that take up an approach to developing “read/write” urban practices. Read/write, as another computational term that has been mapped onto participatory digital urbanism, identifies cities as hitherto primarily read-only spaces, which may become write-able, or participated in, through computational practices. Participating with digital or sensor-based devices allows urban inhabitants to modify cities, as they might modify computer code. Participation may even become a “script” to rewrite, where urban inhabitants may contribute to the formation of new modes of experience.31
Following the read/write trajectory, many approaches to facilitating urban participation that proceed by making the city open to modification focus on citizens’ abilities to add stories to places, to create alternative urban experiences, or to open up other ways of perceiving and engaging with the city that might at the same time be more democratically oriented. And yet, a recurring question arises with many of these projects as to how participation might be narrowed when it is necessarily routed through a program of engagement that requires input and output, sensing and actuating. If not to solve urban problems, then participatory practices are still bound to computational modalities that would appear to open up digital participation to a wider set of inputs but which continue to restrict the potential of inputs to set registers of computational recognition. Whatever falls outside recognition will simply not compute.
The read/write mandate is not just about citizens writing—it can include a consideration of how cities influence this process by “writing” back. Saskia Sassen has written in her discussion of open-source urbanism that more consideration might be given to moments when cities talk back to smart technologies. In other words, she suggests we attend to the ways in which technologies might be “urbanized” through cities reworking these devices and systems. In this way, urban life might be less prone to the simplifications that occur when attempting to fit cities into the parameters of smart technologies.32 How does a city variously interrupt, resist, or reroute these attempts to solve urban problems or facilitate digital participation? Sassen suggests cities do this through their “incompleteness,” whereas many of the proposals for “intelligent cities” make urban spaces into “closed systems.”33 Practices that “urbanize” technology would then make space for this incompleteness and would resist closure in favor of multidirectional openings in urban life.
One question that arises from this proposal to let the city “talk back,” however, is in what ways this talking is registered. Sassen identifies sites where smart and sensor-based technology may be undergoing forms of urbanization, and these are generally places of considerable privilege, from “the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia, the SENSEable City Lab at MIT, and much of the work gathered at the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit at MoMA.”34 A second question that emerges from Sassen’s proposal is the extent to which the urbanization of technology still requires a communicative and computational logic. Although the city might “talk” back, if it is to urbanize technology it must do so within particular modalities. Despite multiple critiques of primarily communication-based approaches to publics, cities, and citizenship,35 many of the ways in which participation unfolds continue to involve the exchange of “messages” that have, as an implicit trajectory, some sort of debate-and-consensus-based dialogue as the condition for urban life.
And yet, despite the persistence of a certain communicative logic, Sassen implicitly raises the question of who is reading and writing, and she extends this dynamic into “the city.” If the city is talking back, and is able to interrupt the closed logic of intelligent technologies, might this exchange also infuse the city with idiotic capacities? In this project of participating within cities of sensors, where the city might talk back, distributions of participation are also by no means located exclusively within human agency. To what extent do the multiple nonhumans inhabiting cities contribute to these idiotic capacities, whether traffic lights or bus stops or road signs? The failure of sensor systems might be one way in which the idiotic capacities of digital participation concretizes. If participation through sensor-equipped technologies is a path to citizenship or to exercising citizenship, then do sensors and sensor-enabled infrastructures also become enrolled in the project of citizenship—of enabling, disabling, or otherwise rendering this program incoherent? The becoming environmental of computation then becomes as much a process of rupture and disconnect as an all-encompassing program of computability.
Writing is a practice that quickly morphs into hacking, moreover, since these are modes of intervention that seek to remake the “civic process.” Read/write becomes read/write/execute, in an ideal approach to participatory digital urbanism. Hacking, and an approach to urban sites as executable, is further articulated as a “civic duty,” since it is not enough simply to gather open government data and produce crime maps, for instance.36 Instead, computationally enabled modes of participating in cities must remake or hack the very ways in which we participate in urban life.
Yet what aptitudes are required in order to be a citizen who knows how to “write” or even to “execute” in digital modalities or, in other words, to participate through computational means? In some cases, new modes of training have emerged in order for citizens to learn techniques that might be useful for participating in the digital and sensor-based city. These courses include offerings on MOOCS, hackathons, urban prototyping sessions, meetups, and more. Urban Prototyping is one such initiative, initially based in San Francisco and which subsequently traveled to other locations including Singapore and London. Funded through the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA), the initial 2012 Urban Prototyping festival in San Francisco focused on “transforming public space through citizen experiments.”37 Drawing on a sort of tactical urbanism approach, projects spanned from the digital to the analogue, including glowing crosswalks, air pollution monitors, digital sidewalk cinemas, and public urinals. The objective of the first festival was to “make cities better, faster,” where prototyping could move to replication and adoption by multiple cities in any number of locations.38
The Urban Prototyping event I attended in April 2013 in London at Imperial College consisted of part seminar series and part hackathon, with an emphasis throughout on identifying and addressing impending urban problems that could be made solvable through digital modalities. The possibility to “change the world through digital technologies” was a feature of the seminar and hackathon events, where usually inaccessible data would be available for hacking, mash-ups, game development, and more, which might lead to developing technologies and platforms for “citizens to overcome the serious challenges that our society faces.”39 Within this Urban Prototyping event, questions proliferated about how digital technology might be reforming the relations between citizens and government. One discussion led to the question: Who will control the city: Team Architecture or Team Computing? Another discussion came to imagine a time when government would cease to play a central role in public life: How would citizens become more resilient in the absence of government? Deskilling and reskilling were terms often deployed: we might have to unlearn some ways of thinking about cities and citizenship in order to develop new practices. Other questions that arose included: In what ways does citizen engagement tend toward the optimization of systems, often at the expense of privacy? Is digital citizenship worth it, in this case? Is it possible to develop a “peer progressive” model of urban engagement? How might it be possible to make crowdsourcing more representative, so that it is not simply a collection of contributions made by those who have a vested interest? And perhaps most perplexing of all: How might it be possible to motivate people to participate in these new modes of digital citizenship, since this proved to be a difficult challenge, even when participation projects were gameified to be apparently more readily engaging. Prototyping projects developed during the hackathon were attempts to experiment with these issues of urban citizenship and engagement via digital modalities.40 But these multiple questions about participatory digital urbanism loom large, sparking considerations about how prototyping can, if ever, move toward new modes of urban citizenship and engagement.
Open-source urban prototyping, as Alberto Corsín Jiménez has argued, might be a technique for digital experimentation that keeps urban possibilities open, particularly in relation to urban infrastructure.41 Yet in order to experiment within digital modalities, skills need to be gained; and experimentation requires considerable levels of education (“deskilling and reskilling”). Prototyping draws attention to the situations in and through which experimentation unfolds. What would be another way of considering how technologies concresce with urban situations, and are not just free-floating tools that would solve free-floating problems? If technologies are put to the test in these contexts, then participation becomes articulated through actual registers of engagement rather than as hypothetical platforms and gestures toward the common good. Idiots and idiotic encounters might even proliferate in these encounters and activate new approaches to the project of participation in the digital and sensor-based city.
Learning to Participate in the Sensor-Based City
As discussed in the previous chapter on proposals for smart cities and in the introduction to this chapter, smart cities effectively require smart citizens rather than dumb ones in order to make this version of digital intelligence operable. Smart citizens need to play their part in the smart city. But in what ways do smart cities effectively program what counts as smart citizenship? And what divergences might occur within this delineation of a smart and participatory citizen? A smart city is usually defined as some version of a highly communicative urbanism comprised of networks and sensors. Here, smartness is a feature of enhanced communicability, where new modes of communicative participation constitute new capacities for citizenship and citizen participation. Sensors and networks are the fundamental building blocks in this version of the smart city. But are there critical traits of citizens, or modalities of citizen participation that are necessary to smart cities? If we follow one historical thread of what counts as a citizen, this requires that one have a voice or be able to communicate within public and urban forums. By extension, to be a citizen in the smart city would require that one has the ability to have a voice and participate within the communicative registers and exchanges enabled through digital technologies.
To explore this area further, I turn to two examples of participatory urbanism that intersect with sensor-based cities. The first example involves the discussion of my experience participating in a TechniCity MOOC on smart cities. The second example attends to a participatory urbanism platform, “FixMyStreet,” that collects reports for fixing urban streets. As I discuss below, these examples raise issues about the characteristics and practices of participatory urbanism as it intersects with participatory sensing and of how computationally and sensor-enabled and cities are meant to facilitate, encourage, and advance urban participation. While both of these examples are largely focused on online participation, as the wider array of participatory urbanism examples indicates, online and offline worlds are entangled so as to redirect attention toward modalities of participation rather than attempt to delineate the apparently virtual or physical locations in which participation might unfold.
In February 2013 (and again in February 2014), I enrolled as a student in a MOOC, “TechniCity,” which had the stated aim of exploring the ways in which technologies—specifically computational networks, mobile devices, and sensors—are changing cities. The point of the course was to examine “from a critical viewpoint” the “sweeping transformation” taking place in how cities are designed, modeled, and engaged with. In this eight-week course, the weekly lectures consisted of presentations by “thought leaders,” including discussions on sensors and smart grids as well as data and participation from academics, creative practitioners, tech gurus, and Silicon Valley technologists. Suggested readings included academic papers on apps for urban planning, industry white papers on smart cities, and discussions of citizen sensors.42 A number of platforms and course forums intersected with the lectures and readings to encourage student participation and contributions to the course. From a “virtual salon” to MindMixer, SiftIt, Spotify, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as Google hangouts, the course was multiply networked and made use of social media as part of its educational remit.
I include this MOOC example since there are numerous ways in which smart cities and sensing applications are delivered through and as educational and training encounters. It seems citizens have a lot to learn in order to become smart and participatory, and so need to be educated and skilled up in order to participate in the smart city. What are these forms of instruction, what do they teach, and how do they purport to make us smarter (or at least smart enough) and more participatory citizens? In what ways might one—by not participating—find oneself to be idiotic or on the fray in relation to this mode of becoming smart? How does this practice of training up for the smart city resonate with Deleuze’s suggestion that, in a computer-oriented society, continuous training takes the place of schooling?43 Are we almost always in need of further training in the smart city, where computation sets the terms of instruction?
As an admittedly haphazard student in this course, I watched lectures on sensors for managing traffic, and I reviewed lesson plan materials on how to scrape Google Street View. I did not contribute to forums as actively as the course suggested I should, but I did review others’ input and wonder at the range and spread of contributions. I specifically learned from the lecture delivered during week two of the course about the “ladder of participation,” a figure taken from a classic 1969 urban participation text written by Sherry Arnstein.44 This ladder-based figure of citizen participation moves from the lowly depths of manipulation and therapy to the more enlightened stages of “citizen power,” which includes partnership, delegated power, and citizen control. While Arnstein’s paper puts forward this model as a way to suggest different stages and modes of citizen engagement, she is as interested in making the ladder a relatively expanded and nondefined space, where she suggests the rungs on the ladder might be just a few of many more, and that there may be 150 or more stages or spaces of citizen involvement, for instance. In the TechniCity course, the ladder is presented in a rather linear progression, however, from control to enablement, where the more engaged realms are inevitably facilitated by digital technology. In fact, it could be argued that, in the course and in this specific lesson, digital technologies were presented as facilitating these higher reaches of citizen engagement.
And yet, I wondered while pacing through this lesson, what happens if you are less adept at using digital technologies, or what if these devices do not realize their promissory aims and instead tend to lead to the usual inertia that often accompanies urban political problems? What aptitudes and resources might be required in order to be a citizen who might be located at the upper rungs of this ladder of participation? What happens if you fall off the ladder, or if you are not able to climb the ladder in the first place?
Momentarily stepping off the ladder of citizen participation, we might also consider what space there is for the idiot in this typology of engagement. If citizen engagement always requires that people are present in a forum and expressing themselves, then to what extent do idiotic presences challenge the progression from control to empowerment that digital technologies would facilitate? This space might be characterized as cosmopolitical, following Stengers, where “political voices” are less able to “master the situation they discuss” because “the political arena is peopled with shadows.” As Stengers further writes, “This is a feeling that political good will can so easily obliterate when no answer is given to the demand: ‘Express yourself, express your objections, your proposals, your contribution to the common world that we’re building.’”45
A core tenet of social media is the project of expressing yourself. Sensor-based urbanisms would unfold not just through the expressive practices of individuals continually pinging and posting messages but also through the voluntary or default sharing of patterns of urban inhabitation. But these various ways of expressing oneself, ostensibly in service of an optimized urban experience, might as easily become sites of nonengagement, idiotic disruptions, or points of interference. The idiot in this way does not offer up a “program” of participation, expressive or otherwise, but instead has “far more to do with a passing fright that scares self-assurance, however justified.”46 Not only is Stengers’s provocation to consider the figure of the idiot not a ladder of empowerment, such a proposal also suggests that we might attend to the ways in which participation is always a diverging rather than an easily or necessarily unifying set of engagements.
Rather than assume that the participatory program will necessarily be followed exactly as instructed, I suggest it is productive to consider examples of how these programs splinter into idiotic contributions. Alongside other students working with the lesson plans and materials, I examine one forum that asked students to document the types and locations of sensors that influence everyday life, which were crowdsourced for discussion by course participants. The forum consisted of examples of sensors in the city, uploaded by course participants and available for commenting and voting by other course participants, who could indicate, “I’ve seen these sensors,” with categories to tick including “never,” “rarely,” “occasionally,” “often,” and “what is it?” Sensor examples ranged from smart bus stops to lampposts and parking spots to environmental sensors to detect urban heat islands and seismic activity, but many examples were curious for the questions they raised about what is a sensor in the city, and what might its capacities be, particularly in relation to enhancing participation. I discuss three of these contributions to the sensor forum as examples of idiotic contributions to the TechniCity MOOC.
Figure 8.2. TechniCity MOOC, student contribution of “sensor.” A “feather circuit board” offered as an urban sensor example, which most contributing students had never previously seen. Screen capture.
Society of Machines
The first sensor-forum example is drawn from an ID card uploaded by a MOOC participant to demonstrate sensor-activated access, and consists of a magnetic card that would pair with an electronic card reader. A staff card for a school psychologist named Jane Doe, this card was tagged as having been seen “often,” “occasionally,” and “rarely” by other course participants. The card and contribution signal toward sensors as actuators, as granting or restricting access to locations depending upon the status of the card bearer. While not necessarily an idiotic contribution in itself, this example uploaded by a MOOC participant bears comparison to an earlier vision of a computer-modulated city in an example discussed by Deleuze. In his Postscript text, he suggests that particular machines coincide with particular societies.47 He then relays an anecdote from Guattari in order to demonstrate his point. He writes:
Félix Guattari has imagined a town where anyone can leave their flat, their street, their neighborhood, using their (dividual) electronic card that opens this or that barrier; but the card may also be rejected on a particular day, or between certain times of day; it doesn’t depend on the barrier but on the computer that is making sure everyone is in a permissible place, and effecting a universal modulation.48
The electronic card, as it intersects with computational urbanisms, is not a simple example of sensors embedded in urban contexts but rather raises questions about how programmed machines might enable or disable access to urban pathways. Idiocy might manifest in the form of programs that inadvertently restrict when they should allow access or in the form of those who would find themselves unable to traverse the city at any point, in an idiotic deferral to sensorized environments. As Christian Ulrik Anderson and Søren Pold write in relation to the issue of access and cities, “The digital urban and scripted space is at once a functional, aesthetic and political space. It manifests itself not as a grand spectacle but most often as a space where one can log-in (or be left out).”49 Access modulates participation in the digital city differently, and the possibilities for engagements across political, functional, and aesthetic registers in many ways depend upon the distributed conditions of access.
From these computerized encounters, questions arise as to how participation is scripted, prevented, or rerouted in the sensor-based smart city. The program of participation is here more than a set of rules that are abided by, since programs rarely go according to plan, and may even be characterized by their accidents. Guattari, together with his electronic card, is participating in the sensor-based city, but if he does not have access he can become idiotic through the same technologies that would ordinarily make him a smart and participating citizen. Deleuze thus suggests that Guattari is an ancillary part of the card-to-urban-access interaction, where he becomes a dividual.
Political engagements here occur across human and nonhuman registers. A human might have notional access, but at the same time defers the possibility of access to sensor environments—in this case, cards and infrastructure—that embody the material conditions and politics of access. Of course, it would be possible to invoke the well-known examples of the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour, with his discussion of seat belts and speed bumps, or Madeline Akrich and her discussion of objects and scripts, which could be another way to talk about programs set in motion by objects that are not simply the result of human intentionality through use.50 In this approach, contra Deleuze, the agency of the card expresses a distribution of action that cannot be located primarily in a human subject. The card may even force actions and responses in ways that give rise to different practices on the part of the card bearer. What Deleuze describes through Guattari is an example of an interrupted or broken program of participation, where the object-script that would facilitate participation can become a locus of control, differently articulated politics, or a machine society that unfolds in distinctly computational ways.
An idiotic encounter then emerges at the point of attempting to gain access and having that access restricted, of querying this restriction, and of being made to inhabit urban sites in ways that are orchestrated by smart technologies contra the intentions of users—technologies that might even be, in some ways, “smarter” than their users. Idiot-ness might here be described as a distributed condition that encompasses would-be urban citizens, access protocols, cards, and sensors, as well as urban spaces and infrastructures. Following Lucy Suchman, we might say that “users” (and their possibility to become idiotic) are distributed across machines, people, conditions of access, programs of engagement, and more.51 At the same time, as Andrejevic suggests, within environments that increasingly depend on ubiquitous computing for conditions of access, “unwired humans will come across as singularly unintelligent, non-conversant and incomprehensible.”52 A world of ambient intelligence makes a human without sensing capabilities potentially idiotic. Far from being a naked citizen contributing to urban life through an inclination toward the common good, the digital citizen requires an extensive arrangement of resources in order to participate and be sensible in the sensor-based city.
The Private Life of the Public Idiot
The second sensor occasion charts how an idiot has at various times been defined as someone unable to participate in public life—where someone cannot be a citizen if he or she is not able to contribute to public forums. But in current circumstances that might be characterized by the excessive production of (previously private) data, we could also distinguish the idiocy that emerges when private lives are made baldly public, with intimate details made available everywhere all the time, so that this distinction collapses such that the public-ness of citizenship is no longer a defining trait. Another example of a student contribution added to the sensors-in-the-city forum of this MOOC then includes a billboard that reads:
GPS Tracker—$250, Nikon Camera with zoom lens—$1600, Catching my LYING HUSBAND and buying this billboard with our investment account—Priceless.
Tell Jessica you’re moving in!
From Google Glasses to GPS tracking and exposé billboards, the idiot appears at this newly blurred set of intersections between public participation and private lives where an “open” city and ensuing excess of data are made available through sensors tracking and reporting the banalities and infractions of everyday life. Is spilling the details of one’s private life into public forums a mode of participatory urbanism? At what point do data even qualify as private, when privacy is an increasingly obsolete concept? Do practices involving the constant monitoring and sharing of personal data for wider distribution constitute idiotic or good citizenship? Or do they challenge the priorities and spaces of citizen participation beyond public and private to sites of contestation, the enrollment of sympathetic supporters, or the airing of grievances, as well as making contributions to the “greater good” through the sharing of intimate data?
With passive data collection, the terms of participation and citizenship in sensor-based cities are such that the default setting is to overstep or disregard the usual distinctions of private and public life. Private life, the usual space of the idiot, comes flooding into public life, the space of the assumed “common good.” Here is an idiotic encounter through political renegotiations that occur where egregious information about citizens is deliberately or inadvertently made available. These renegotiations may also be absent, since in order to participate citizens may have no choice but to provide information if they are to participate as able communicative digital citizens, because to unplug or not provide data would be to become an idiot.
While many advocates for sensor-based urban participation suggest that these practices open up new forms of civic agency, sensor-based engagements restructure participation and the processes by which an urban citizen is understood to be making a contribution. Participation need not even be “active,” in the sense of exercising volition, but can occur through passive data collection, tracking (self-initiated or conducted by others), wearing devices, and having technologies report on one’s behalf. Participatory contributions are not expressions of intent, or even interruption, but rather involve being an available sensor-based and data-producing urban entity. GPS data might be picked up to articulate points about infidelity or illegality, but within the processes of data analytics most of these moments of pattern detection will instead be parsed by algorithms rather than disgruntled partners. But the previously idiotic space of private activities floods into public forums, while reconstituting the ways in which public-ness and public life is designated. The contribution—even if passive—of private data becomes a new way of engaging in, articulating, and sustaining the digital city.
Failure to Compute: 3 + 2 Does Not Equal 5
A third sensor occasion considers the idiot as a person or entity that does not compute. Idiot-ness may emerge through failing to follow instructions or interpreting instructions in a way so tangential to the project aims that moments of befuddlement, dismay, or confusion proliferate. This final list of sensor examples added by students includes images of bacon cooking in a frying pan with a splatter shield, a pistol-shaped hairdryer, and a feather circuit board. One might ask: Where is the city or sensors in this crowdsourced example of urban sensors? Perhaps lodged in the strange interstices of a bacon-splatter tray there is some sensor-actuator response ready to contain popping grease from defiling domicile walls, but the bustling city seems a distant land from this fry-up scene. Possibly these MOOC student-citizens have misunderstood their assignment and are providing deliberately misleading or incorrect data as a way to interrupt the steady flow of contributions to this forum. Or spam bots may have intervened and garbled the contributions of otherwise diligent citizens-in-training.
Whatever the occasion, in the mixing of citizens and sensors of all sorts one could politely say that potentially other-than-smart contributions are made. Maybe lodged in the pistol hairdryer example provided by one MOOC participant a sensor awaits activation for a morning beauty routine. This may gesture toward an urban encounter in waiting, but its relevance to the forum remains a mystery. And a microchip ostensibly assembled from soybeans and chicken feathers seems to offer an organic approach to sensors. Whether speculative, fictional, or the material of one course member’s strange electronics experiments, this wholesome sensor option begs the question of what materials will variously construct smart and sensor-filled cities. Is it idiotic to propose that sensors should be biodegradable and organic?
My point in this analysis of participatory engagements with thinking through digital urban participation vis-à-vis the idiot is to attend to these concrete examples that I encountered during my attempt to train up to the challenges of the smart city while learning from other participant contributions. In the process, I questioned what sorts of intelligence were brought together, promoted, or alternatively derailed in attempts to make citizens smart and cities apparently more participatory. The participatory citizen unfolds as a potentially idiotic figure in these sensor examples, which ask us to rethink the settlements at which smart and sensor-based participation would seek to arrive. The idiot is not simply a ruse, but rather a figure that troubles the instructions and assumptions of smartness, of smart cities, citizens, or actions that would course through with efficient connectivity, a cascade of clear decision-making, and problem-solving actions.
As Deleuze has suggested, one version of the idiot may be someone who insists that 3 + 2 does not equal 5. This is an “old” version of the idiot, one who “would doubt every truth of nature.” In contrast, “the new idiot has no wish for indubitable truths; he will never be ‘resigned’ to the fact that 3 + 2= 5 and wills the absurd.”54 Whether old or new idiot, basic computations do not yield expected results. The figure of the idiot (as a “hazy presence”) here suggests it may be possible to consider how participation unfolds neither as a simple formula for achieving the common good nor as the dutiful actions of rational actors, but rather through distributed and often disruptive modalities of engagement that reorient accounts of smart, idiotic, or instrumental forms of participation toward other engagements with collective experience, plural realisms, and unexpected potential for creative advance in urban situations.
In the updated 2014 version of the TechniCity course, the final lecture, “The Future of the TechniCity,” ends with the cautionary explanation and statement:
This is our last week together! We end the course thinking about the future of technology in our cities. We’ll explore wearable technology, mobile money, and more. But most importantly we have a cautionary note that technology isn’t the be all end all solution for all of the world’s problems.55
As Mackenzie established in his Simondonian-influenced study, Transductions, “technicity” as an abstraction is in fact a way of articulating relations so that technological analyses do not focus on technologies as apparently given and do not impute deterministic agency to devices.56 Instead, technicity draws attention to the shifting and transductive relations that emerge through extended technological engagements and arrangements. Here is a different version of technicity, one which demonstrates that even while the instructors of this TechniCity course caution against seeing smart city technologies as simple solutions, solutionism may in fact be the primary type of relation that sensor-based technologies tend to articulate. But this is also exactly where idiots (whether human or nonhuman) proliferate within these solution-oriented approaches to digitally equipped citizenship. This is also where politics might be best be identified, understood, and practiced—as a reworking of digital participatory urbanism. By attending to these idiotic encounters and presences, as Stengers writes, such a cosmopolitical approach might “protect us from an ‘entrepreneurial’ version of politics, giving voice only to the clearly-defined interests that have the means to mutually counter-balance one another.”57 Instead of a politics that attempts to sidestep hesitation and divergence in pursuit of an unquestioned common vision of the city, a cosmopolitical proposal would see these idiotic encounters as an ongoing condition of engagement.
Citizens Fixing Streets
If anything, digital programs for participation raise as many questions as they offer answers about how engagement in a sensor-based city might unfold. While held up as a solution to the problem of the city, participatory and sensor-based technologies inevitably create their own obstacles, diversions, and problems that do not necessarily allow for an easy passage to a more participatory urbanism. The second participatory urbanism project that I discuss is particularly illuminating for these issues, which it makes evident in relation to how urban problems are identified, categorized, reported, and acted upon. FixMyStreet is an online platform that citizens can use to report problems with urban spaces and infrastructure. The problems are in some cases reported to local councils, which might then decide to fix the identified problems.
FixMyStreet is a UK-based service developed through mySociety, a nonprofit group established in 2004 that uses digital tools to make governments more accountable.58 FixMyStreet was launched in 2007 as what might be classified as a “civic app.” In line with the distinction made by Nesta in the above discussion on civic apps, FixMyStreet occupies a niche in the participatory digital city ecosystem that is also populated by SeeClickFix (an American-based version of the platform), as well as Citizens Connect and FillThatHole (a UK-based platform for cyclists to document potholes), platforms that are specifically oriented toward enabling citizens to report problems with urban streets and infrastructure.59
In my investigation into the FixMyStreet app and platform, I focused on the borough of Lewisham within southeastern London, an area with a diverse population of varying socioeconomic circumstances. Far from the wealthy western side of town, Lewisham residents may engage with street fixing in ways that may be particularly attentive to the at-times precarious state of infrastructure here. But because this platform and app work through universal categories of concern for street conditions, from abandoned vehicles to dumped rubbish to graffiti and road defects, the differences in urban reporting may show up most clearly at the point of written and visual problems logged.
The FixMyStreet platform and app are relatively easy to use, and only require that one first choose a borough, identify the location of the particular report on a Google map, assign the problem a category, add any additional textual or visual detail, and include one’s individual details with email. The report will then be made live, and is then typically communicated to the local council, which may or may not decide to “fix” the problem reported. Problems reported over the past two years in Lewisham range from rubbish dumped on streets to dog fouling, missing utility covers, rubbish- and rat-filled derelict phone booths, dead or nuisance animals, potholes and more potholes, and missing or incorrect signage, as well as a general concern with the condition of infrastructure and an impending sense that if particular problems are not fixed then future consequences could be disastrous.
When problems are fixed, a green icon will appear with the text, “fixed.” When problems are left to linger, a grey box will appear with the text, “unknown.” Problems most likely to be fixed include clearing dumped rubbish and fly tipping, covering missing utility holes, and dealing with any infrastructural issues that might lead to litigious action. Problems that are often left to linger include potholes, phone booths, dead animals, and anything that constitutes criminal activity as opposed to an urban-space issue. In August 2009, one person logged that a Christmas tree had been abandoned. In April 2013, the problem was reported as fixed. A commentator then wrote, “4 years later? Are you sure it didn’t just rot down?”60 The timing and accountability of fixing can be thrown into question when problems linger in an unknown state and when fixes surface that seem to be attributed more to neglect than to the active remedying of problems. By questioning the process by which problems are fixed, this Christmas-tree commentator introduces an idiotic mode of participation, slowing down and asking how these problems go away, if ever.
Problems that remain unknown, unfixed, and unaddressed are many, a situation that raises questions as to how effective this platform is for empowering citizens to communicate with councils or to have their grievances heard and addressed. One report notes with alarm, “Council worker mowing rubbish!”61 Here, rather than pick up litter on a grassy right-of-way, a council worker took the more expedient route of mowing through plastic bags and bottle tops in order to shred them to a finer and potentially less noticeable bit of debris. The person logging this report takes this as an indication of general neglect for street cleaning, and no doubt also as a sign of a lack of care for the neighborhood. But in many ways such an observation verges on the idiotic, as it does not define the task in such a way that it may be easily fixed. Rants, complaints, and general observations of neglect: these are not computable problems but rather could be characterized as participatory noise that runs through this platform.
As the FixMyStreet site indicates, problems are typically reported to the local council or “relevant local body,” such as a transport agency. The overview notes that the site’s purpose is for the reporting of “physical problems,” and other platforms may be more appropriate for problems not within this category. However, even problems that might be clearly identified as “physical” do not always feed through to solutions. For instance, one site user complains about a recurring problem with rubbish overflowing at one particular intersection, which eventually leads to “rats in the rubbish.” While there seemed to be a slight improvement after reporting the rubbish situation, the problem continued, so that the user writes, “Please don’t suggest ‘Do it yourself’: I’ve offered, still waiting for a reply from Lewisham Council.”62 There is a sort of ambivalence here around DIY—the user is taking the time to report a street problem while also indicating a willingness to engage with the problem if communication with the council can be established, and yet the user also expresses a frustration with DIY and a sensed lack of accountability on behalf of the council. DIY here is not a simple pathway of citizen empowerment, but a space of hesitation. It is unclear who should or will take responsibility for the rat and rubbish problem, and so the FixMyStreet platform registers this as an idiotic exchange of sorts, where the problem is not solved, the “common good” is not readily advanced, accountability and empowerment are not clearly articulated, and urban engagement remains a faltering undertaking.
Within the FixMyStreet platform, the street becomes an object of citizens sensing and identifying problems, reporting these problems for repair, and being variously impressed or disappointed at the resolutions achieved or inaction that results. While citizens perform sensing functions, the sense data they collect and report does not necessarily lead to actuating solutions. The street further becomes the site of a particular type of problem making. Physical problems that readily fit within preidentified categories and local council chains of action stand the best chance of being addressed, while problems that fall outside this scope may be rendered as idiotic—as not being addressable within the logic or terms of the platform. Even when physical problems with streets and infrastructure are coded into tasks, solution-based actions are not readily realized. Who is responsible for the city? This is a question that remains unanswered in many of the FixMyStreet platform exchanges.
Rethinking the Sensoring of Participation
FixMyStreet, as with many other platforms and participatory- and passive-sensing projects, relies on a certain task flow in order to make problems identifiable and operable. Participation in the digital city then becomes a matter both of “instrumenting the citizen” and of breaking down urban problems into computable tasks. These tasks, as identified in one IBM paper on citizen sensors, typically involve selecting an urban event to report, collecting sense data, and reporting and analyzing data collected, most often through a smartphone interface.63 Sense data collected usually includes that which smartphones can sense, including images, location, altitude, acceleration, temperature, and direction. There are multiple sensors in a smartphone, and this microecology of participating user with sensing devices in relation to a city full of problems waiting to be solved becomes the basis for the task flow of participation in the digital city.
Citizens then perform sensing tasks that are continuous with a sensor-filled city and its sensor devices. In this way, a proliferation of sensors does not necessarily need to be the determining driver of sensor interactions as such, since citizens are also sensing within computational logics through an established chain of tasks. Citizens become interchangeable with sensors, they even become sensors. Citizens monitor themselves and environments, environments self-monitor, and in this loop of gathering data for participation and democratic urban action, urban sensing networks do more than simply record and model existing patterns of urban life—they also enable and form ongoing possibilities for urban engagement. The analysis of sensor data, whether gathered through participatory or passive means, leads to the performance of new actions and modulations, thereby in-forming the “behavior” of citizens and further possibilities for participation.
While much attention is deservedly directed toward analyzing sensors for their capacities of surveillance, this particular analysis has not focused on surveillance-based concerns in relation to participatory sensing and urbanism. However, as is especially clear in the context of participatory urbanism, surveillance emerges not only as a project of real-time observation but also as a store of multiple banal details and data about everyday life that can be mined for patterns and even turned into anticipatory and predictive engagements. Surveillance in this respect is about capacities yet to come as much as current documentation in the production of new datasets, whether crowdsourced data on potholes, passively sensed data from individual journeys, or participatory sensing in the form of eager urbanites annotating, coding, and hacking urban space. Sensor- and computation-based approaches to urban life are then as much descriptive gatherings of current events as they are productive expressions of new practices, ways of life, and modes of politics.
Within these task flows undertaken by instrumented citizens, participation is far from an easy and straightforward project of generating and analyzing urban data for optimal urban functioning. Instead, participation becomes characterized as much by multiple idiotic encounters—across human and nonhuman sites of engagement—as it does by purported new modes of democratic engagement. A considerable amount of literature on digital participation focuses on the ways in which people connect, social movements form, and (even revolutionary) actions unfold.64 There is also a significant body of literature that closely examines the networks within and through which participation takes place and which draws attention to the inevitable power relations that in-form what sorts of participation might even be possible in the first place.65 Social and digital media are generally advanced as tools that address the problem of participation, even fomenting revolutions. Alongside the extensive set of participatory digital urbanism projects, there are a number of literatures that also draw out—critically, theoretically, and practically—the ways in which digital participation is unfolding and might continue to develop. Clearly, there is a multiplicity of terms and practices circulating that carry the descriptor of participation. My point here has not been to undertake a comprehensive review of these practices since this work been done elsewhere in various ways.66
Moving laterally from these studies interested in the capacities of social media to spark actions, I instead attend here to the ways in which participation does not go according to plan. In this sense, I align this analysis with research that might question or critique the democratic engagements that digital media might facilitate.67 Other studies, such as the collection on DIY Citizenship edited by Matt Ratto and Megan Boler, collect together more empirical encounters with DIY citizenship, digital and otherwise, to consider how more active and making-based forms of engagement might transform citizenship.68 Kurt Iveson suggests that, rather than ask whether digital urban platforms enable particular types of engagement and citizenship, we should instead ask: “‘What is the vision of the good citizen and the good city that they seek to enact?’”69 Similarly focusing on politics as that which occurs at sites and moments of disruption, Iveson notes that participatory platforms do not de facto lead to politics or political engagements, and may in fact have depoliticizing effects. His point of inquiry is then to ask whose version of the good city we are enacting through participatory technologies of engagement. But a more Stengerian focus on politics and disruption might, vis-à-vis the idiot, ask not about what vision of the good city or good citizen is being enacted, but instead query any project that would assume its own goodness. The idiot always asks, “But what about . . . ?” thereby disrupting an unproblematic marching toward a common good. As the idiot reminds us, there is always more at stake.
Civic Media and Tactical Media: Re-versioning Participation
In critiques of the smart city a number of writers and tech gurus make a point of calling for greater attention to the role that “grassroots” or “bottom-up” citizen engagements can play in giving rise to a more human, just, and equitable set of digital city developments.70 And there are many projects underway that would attempt to respond to this challenge, which may variously be seen as projects of disruption, democratization, and enablement. Numerous projects have sprung up that attempt to experiment with alternative approaches to digitally oriented and sensor-based urban participation and at times also to disrupt the smart city rhetoric that is often primarily issuing from technology companies. Projects in this area span from Spontaneous Intervention projects shown at the U.S. Pavilion during the 2012 Venice Biennale, including the San Francisco Garden Registry, a platform for identifying used and underused garden space in the San Francisco region; PetaJarkata, a crowdsourced and Twitter-based project for enabling residents of Jakarta to report and respond to recurring flood events in Jakarta; and the City Bug Report, a project by Henrik Korsgaard and Martin Brynskov that allows citizens to report on bugs in the smart city and that makes space for the “messy” social and political encounters that inevitably unfold in cities.71 Many of these projects continue to work within a citizen-sensor-urban-problem dynamic but at the same time open up other spaces for participation that encounter the disruptions and possible openings that might make for other urban political engagements.
While the point here is not to identify “good” and “bad” examples of participatory digital urbanism, these strategies could be described as re-versioning participation—of working within a prevailing set of approaches to participation and experimenting within alternative possible outcomes.72 Many of these projects unfold through a sort of “tactical urbanism meets tactical media.”73 They are experiments with urban technology, participation, and citizenship. While some offer up different ways of thinking about urban inhabitations and practices, others are driven by a technology-for-technology’s sake ethos—of making the city computable in order to test the capacities of sensor devices. All of these projects raise the question of what role these tactical projects might play in seriously recasting the increasing digitalization of urban spaces and processes.
Writing on tactical media, a form of digital disruption that is in some ways the uneasy forerunner to more integrative forms of participatory media, Rita Raley suggests that tactical media should not be evaluated exclusively for its assumed effectivity. She suggests, “The right question to ask is not whether tactical media works or not, whether it succeeds or fails in spectacular fashion to effect structural transformation; rather, we should be asking to what extent it strengthens social relations and to what extent its activities are virtuosic.”74 In this passage, Raley responds to an argument made by Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter, who critique tactical media for its fleetingness and ability to be co-opted back within the very systems and arrangements it would interrupt and reroute. Recognizing the validity of their point, Raley nonetheless suggests that focusing on effectiveness may be the wrong criterion with which to evaluate tactical media. Virtuosity, as an alternative criterion, enables events to have their own momentum and purpose, thereby sidestepping a teleological agenda that says tactical media are only as good as their impacts.75
If we were to extend this approach to an analysis of participatory urbanism and sensing, we could then suggest that participation may not necessarily be characterized by preplanned outcomes, but rather it may rework processes of engagement toward making, changing, and mobilizing situations differently. Yet there remains an abiding question as to whether even virtuosic participatory media fold back into digital media that circumscribe politics as computable problems. With all of these projects, it may then be useful to keep in mind the idiot, the one who “does not compute,” and who, by not abiding by the terms of participation, forces us to reencounter the problem and the politics of urban engagement.
A Cosmopolitical Ecology of Participation
If we were to return at the end of this chapter to a consideration of all the multiple sensors that are embedded in urban spaces and that facilitate access to urban infrastructures, or that are transported by urban citizens in the form of smartphones, we might make a list of technologies that spans from automated traffic lights to smart bus stops to bicycle-sharing schemes, increasingly smart energy grids and screen-filled urban environments, not to mention innumerable CCTV cameras trained on urban spaces. Urban spaces are increasingly sensorized, and urban engagements are also in-formed by these sensor-based modalities. As I have suggested in this chapter, sensors are not just about the proliferating hardware and associated software that would automate urban infrastructural functions but also about the changing character of urban engagements. These engagements shift within the technomaterial context of sensorized cities and also through the computational logics that are put into play where citizens become sensors and perform sensor-like functions in relation to computable urban problems.
Participatory actions within sensor-based cities most often consist of monitoring environments and reporting data for networked analysis. Action—a response to the urban problems identified—is often assumed to flow from this monitoring data. The intelligence that would actuate and solve urban problems is made to be continuous across citizens and digital urban infrastructures, an intelligence that is narrated as being bound up with democratic engagement and sustainable action. If citizens—and urban algorithmic networks—have more data about urban life, then urban experiences are meant to be optimized and made more participatory and intelligent.
But these modes of intelligence and participation, as I have suggested here, are as likely to be generative of idiotic encounters as participatory ones, and the actors in these digital exchanges—whether human or nonhuman— are as likely to produce idiotic non sequiturs as they are rational advances to enhanced urbanization. The distributions of multiple sensors used to manage urban processes as well as encourage participation are sites productive of idiotic engagements. These idiotic sensor occasions include encounters that take place in interactions with the sensor city, in sites of data production and circulation, in the contributions made and interpretations given to participatory platforms. Opportunities for idiotic participation also proliferate across distributed human and nonhuman arrangements and engagements.
With the idiot brought into a more considered part of the dynamics of participatory digital urbanism, perhaps cities could begin to be understood less as technical problems in need of fixes. Drawing on Stengers not just for her discussion of the idiot but also for her Whitehead-inspired discussion of how to make the field of problem making more inventive,76 I suggest the computable problem of contemporary cities here gives reason to reconsider how this problem has been cast. By reconsidering the field of the problem of the computable and sensor-based city, it might finally be possible to reinvent participatory practices that unfold within digital urbanism encounters.
Proposals for sensor-based and digital urban participation are often narrated through a vision of the good city and the smart citizen. But as the idiotic encounters I have discussed demonstrate, these projects also raise questions about who participates, how urban problems are identified, and what participation is meant to accomplish. Citizens become sensors and urban problems become computable in many of the projects I have discussed here. Yet it may be necessary to consider how the idiot disrupts consensual visions of goodness and instead troubles participation in ways that reroute the rules of the game. As Stengers writes, “One has to be wary of individual good will. Adding a cosmopolitical dimension to the problems that we consider from a political angle does not lead to answers everyone should finally accept. It raises the question of the way in which the cry of fright or the murmur of the idiot can be heard ‘collectively,’ in the assemblage created around a political issue.”77 Stengers suggests that the idiot especially forces us to attend to the concrete conditions of problems. If urban environments are under stress in one way or another, these problems would then need to be attended to in their specificity and not as conditions conducive to solutions propagated by universal information architectures. Such a specific (cosmo-)political ecology of problems is then an important part of attending to urban conditions. These specific conditions ensure that we cannot proceed through “blind confidence” or “good intentions” but rather must “[build] an active memory of the way solutions that we might have considered promising turn out to be failures, deformations or perversions.”78 This chapter has described such a catalog of failures and deformations through a few encounters with the idiot at sites of participatory digital urbanism. This list could be extended. But it is also an opening and invitation to consider how participation and the problem of the city might be reinvented by attending to the diverse inhabitations that break with the program of digital urbanism.