WORKSHOP | Social Butterfly to Urban Citizen

Posted on 30/07/2009

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Over the past few months, under the umbrella of the Placing project funded by the Australia Council, I’ve been researching and writing about urban ideas, with particular interest in the process of writing urban life and cultures. Placing is a somewhat peripatetic investigation of urban innovation and creativity focusing on the interleaved ideas of writing place and place writing from an interdisciplinary perspective. In the course of my research, I’ve stumbled upon many blogs, wikis and Twitterers that are investigating similar territories, highlighting the possibilities for cities as well as exploring, sometimes inadvertently, modes of writing about cities.

Content sharing and social networking, now, are integral to the way in which designers, planners, artists, journalists and other built environment practitioners are conducting their work and sharing their perspectives with others, drawing people into public conversations about talking place, writing place and making place. Twitter is a powerful forum in which to engage in (or spread) a public conversation about cities and place. Other place oriented technologies, such as social mapping and various iPhone apps, are also providing a means for exploring and altering our knowing of place. These technologies and writings do not substitute for place but rather bring something different into our narratives and imaginings of place, though certainly not new as place writing is because old as the cities themselves: travel diaries, flanerie and the like. Is a journalist a built environment practitioner? I’d like to think we can be, somehow enmeshed in the telling and making of cities and somehow complicit or implied in the public life and architectures that shape the city.

Cities, like stories and lives, unfold, sometimes unravelling, over time. While the polity and various professions might build the city, it is ‘the people’ who make it. For me, the idea of public conversation is integral to city making, hence my interest in practices (cultural production) of writing and dialogue (cultural exchange) that are grounded in place (cultural site). The city is a type of cultural expression, a type of cultural entity. The city, like media, is primarily concerned with connectivity, temporality, spatiality and mobility. It never felt like a big step coming from a cultural journalism background into urban affairs. This, then, causes me to consider the role of civic engagement and new technologies in city making – and this was one of the threads that ran through a two day workshop, From Social Butterfly to Urban Citizen: a HCSNet workshop on social and mobile technology to support civic engagement, I attended at QUT earlier this month. The interdisciplinary workshop aimed to discuss social and mobile technologies and how they can be studied, designed and developed further to support local participation and civic engagement in urban environments. An intimate group of 50 or so people, primarily academics and researchers, had the pleasure of hearing about a diverse range of research projects focusing on processes of engagement, public communication and consultation. The workshop was informal with brief presentations from researchers, which meant that some of the practicalities of collaborative projects and processes were explored (from a research perspective).

In From Social Butterfly to Urban Citizen, I was particularly interested in those projects that encourage different kinds of civic engagements, such as various networked communications that augment the experience of place and community. Some of these can be used for community consultation (such as projects by Ronald Schroeder and Margo Brereton on civic discussions in social and suburban space) and others for negotiating cultural or historical mappings of a place (such as Kate Richards’ locative media artwork, Wayfarer, and Kevin Weisner’s research on mobile narratives). These projects cause us to consider the formations of civic agency via screens of all sizes: from the very personal handheld screen to the very public screen presiding over the town square. While the respective projects of Schroeder and Brereton provide us with renewed optimism about the possibility of self-organising and empowered communities, the workshop as a whole seemed to grapple with ideas of civic life, new citizenship and an engaged citizenry. What can that mean in a territory as contested as the city and how can public conversations somehow untangle the contradictory expectations. For example, Kurt Iveson spoke of grafitti in the context of contested sites and that causes some consideration of how a person makes a mark on a city, and how grafitti is or isn’t a practice of engagement or citizenship. For Iveson, there is a question of governance with an emphasis on self-governing, implying some construct of sovereignty. Citizenship is couched in terms of responsbility throughout several presentations, but there is another layer of questioning that poists that these are not simple propositions – how do we take responsibility for responsibility? How do we participate in participation? Iveson proposes an idea of ‘responsibilisation’, which indicates to me that responsibility is not some end state but rather involves a process of negotiation potentially akin to a game.

Some projects seemed like tentative forays intended to address specific needs. Perhaps that is the nature of this kind of research – specific and located despite the increasing portability and mobility of communications. Cities are big, diverse and in most instances sprawling. So unless a case is being made that technologies can overwrite, even flatten, that diversity, then the ideas of ubicomp and pervasive technologies needs to be understood in all its fractious possibility. That is, of course, the territory that Adam Greenfield (author of Everyware) covered in his keynote. For example, I’d be curious to know how Schroeder’s notion of a large public screen will work in a privatised space of a suburban shopping centre – I say this because there is so little truly civic space in suburban areas where public life can happen. While mobile narratives, like those proposed by Weisner, have brought interactive storytelling to the public realm of an inner urban village and a precinct development for the town centre of a regional town, could it work in North Lakes with its tumbling topography of privatised and spreading space? Do some technologies or applications of technology require a finer urban grain when interfacing with the physical forms of the city? Perhaps then, Margo Brereton’s Nnub, with its focus on designing participation, is a more appropriate means of mediating social interaction in more scattered suburban areas: a smaller screen in a smaller space (being a shop). For me, these questions need some redress otherwise such research will continue to work in the framework of suburban and urban divide.

In furthering the ways in which urban informatics can connect, reinscribe and represent the city, I increasingly see discussion and thought about urban form disappear from consideration. Urban informatics is inherently referential to urban space and geographies – it is framed by a space – a physical space – that is understood to be urban. This implies both materiality and immateriality. I’m looking for sensibilities that consider how the city is in(form)ed by ideas of in(form)atics, in(form)ation and in(form)ing. Communications are always somehow embodied and grounded. The cloud doesn’t just float off over the horizon. I’m also looking for how this research can reinvigorate planning and design practice, imbuing those professionalisms with an awareness of citizenship and collaboration. Are there sufficient lines of communication between the research sector and industry? How do these ideas filter through to the consultants, the community workers, the social entrepreneurs, the activists and the council planners? Or perhaps, given my emphasis on public conversation, it is a given that the media itself implies reiteration: on the one hand, holding intellectual property close and, on the other, releasing it into the socially networked realm of sharing.

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