Homing Mechanisms: Orienting the Smart Citizen in the Smart City

smart watch

HannahK: Slight change of tone and theme for this post, but bear with us. Ben has graciously allowed me to dominate this week’s post.

BK: Well, I had to mow the lawn and fix a bookshelf.  And the last match of Newcastle’s season was on.

HK: Toon, Toon, Black and White Army! Ahem. The last few weeks have been crunch time for the submission of my primary research thesis for my MScR, and I’m still blinking computer-screen light and endless bibliography tweaking from my eyes. So, I thought I’d outline the stuff I’ve been working on.

My thesis has been considering how to balance out the discourse between the injection of ‘Smart’ technologies into civic culture and citizens receiving or engaging with these technologies. The overall intention was to create a scalable interaction model that can be used to describe engagement effectively, and optimise ‘Smart Citizens’ in the ‘Smart City’.

I’m sure you’ll be devastated to know that I’m not going to bore you with my 30 page dissertation. But, I’ll give you the bare bones and be interested in hearing thoughts and responses!

As we’ve described previously, it’s easy to interpret smart endeavours in city planning as either pretty but unnecessary ribbon on already functioning urban culture, or to use them as a conceptual safety net used to spread civic reach as wide and as possible, often resulting in a ‘catch all’ that only catches some.

The introduction of new technologies into the market, a city or to a home doesn’t necessarily mean these technologies will be used to greatest effect, or even adopted at all. This goes for multiple innovative endeavours: new app tools or websites, slick ‘Smart Fridges’, city lighting etc.

Users, particularly if they are used to being passively or affirmatively involved in digital engagement (another blog for another time), may see digital developments as invasive or unnecessary, finding it difficult to marry benefits to the effort of adoption into routine.

Further, and more importantly from a long-term perspective, the reliance on flashy, new technologies to drum up more smart city hype often requires, at minimum, consistent access to the internet, a computer or smartphone in order to engage with the tools being developed. Anyone below that minimum threshold to access, for example, with low digital literacy or a single shared house computer with slow connection, could conceivably and consistently fall off the edge of the ‘smart’ infrastructure, and be inhibited from re-engagement.

Then, particularly from the standpoint of governmental investment in urban technologies and the systems that hold them accountable to the citizens they are trying very hard to support, I believed it would be useful to develop an interaction ontology which describes optimised, active engagement with new technologies or information. The model I believe can be replicable to various interaction instances, and it outlines how users orient themselves around the tools and processes of engaging with their environment.

This schema might not only be used to describe where engagement can be scaled up and out, co-evolving smart citizen and smart city, but also where it might fall away, outlining where users could fall out of patterns of active engagement in ‘Smart’ technologies and civic interaction. I’ve so far called it a ‘homing’ mechanism.

This mechanism is an ontology describing basic instincts around complex and multiple psychological processes. However, it is an ontology that can be used to evaluate and design new ‘smart’ enterprises. It can be described in three parameters of space, one of time: recognition, access, withdrawal, and routine.

Recognition: The user must be able to recognise and observe the thresholds to accessing new technologies: what are they, why they should access them, how to engage with them. A citizen used to receiving council bills in the post might not understand, for example, why they should engage with an online hub to make transactions easier. Users must also recognise the incentives to access – why should they engage in the first place? We must not only make engagement instances recognisable, but ensure city responses to instances of engagement are clear, comprehensible and, predominantly, affirmative.

Access: This is also quite easy to wrap our brains around superficially, but access is a deep and intensely problematic issue in civic engagement. If access is recognisable, is it still accessible? What facilitates and hinders access – can users without internet access these services? Are they clear enough for the visually impaired, non-native language speakers, or digitally challenged, for example? How is this technology bolstering access incrementally and developing it over time? Methodologies of digital access should iterate, involving increasingly diverse sets of users in the processes of engagement.

Withdrawal: This may seem counterintuitive to theories of engagement, but it is vital that a user engaging with new methods, tools or digital technologies be able to refer them back to the processes they already inhabit, and orient the new against the expected. To be able to ‘withdraw’ from access, and thus control the processes of access, we change the culture of digital technologies to enact a more even discourse between users and their digital environments. The ability to withdraw, recalibrate and choose to engage is a vital affirmative action on the part of the city.

Furthermore, as citizens become more and more engaged with the smart city, those technologies should enact sensations of safety, withdrawal and consistency within the patterns of the city. Again, how does this technology relate to previous methodologies of engagement, what mechanisms does it use to facilitate withdrawal, why might a user choose access over withdrawal, when might a user want to withdraw, and where to – who is able and unable to comprehend their ability to withdraw and thus control their own processes of engagement?

Routine: Routine is the habitual processes of urban living and engagement into which the above mechanisms must be inserted in order to be effective. Designing a technology must not only fulfil a design purpose but a strategic one, and be able to consider who is accessing a technology, when access might be improved, and where? Where is that elusive gap in the routine where technology can support and improve the processes of sustainable engagement in a smart city’s infrastructure.

Using these ‘homing’ instincts to describe interaction and digital engagement should help us develop a consistent approach to integrating smart technologies and  facilitate citizen comprehension of and participation in in digital civic culture. Hopefully, with the aim of sustainably co-evolving the ‘smart citizen’ and the ‘smart city.

BK: For me, all that spins off lots of thinking, but that will have to wait until the next blog!  Please comment, it would be great to develop this as a discourse.homing mechanism