“Digital democracy”: the designer’s role

Anthropocentric VS Ecosystemic approaches – Source: Unknown

This paper was written in the context of the Smart Cities and Collective Intelligence course held in the Advanced Master Design by Data, École des Ponts ParisTech. This article (originally published here) follows the one called Of the role of data in the City I wrote some time ago.

When thinking about Smart Cities we envision actual cities bombed with millions of IoTs (& apps). This scenario makes space for designers as in-between-persons to work on digital or physical interfaces for technological solutions, for BtoB or BtoC applications. This is a very reductive way of saying, because this “B” (standing for “business”) can be an institution like a City Council, and then the designer has a civic role in the democracy.

What is the nature of democracy?

Until very recently “democracy” had a bad signification — for about 2000 years actually — due to the bad representativeness it was affiliated to. The people are easily manipulable by demagogues (or medias) and are subject to their passions. Most of all they are unable to see where the “common good” is, and could impose an egalitarian society in the agora because poor people always outnumber rich ones.

Democracy have been seen as a two ways paths: majority’s tyranny or chaos.

Francis Dupuis-Deri describes this in his work “L’esprit antidémocratique des fondateurs de la ‘démocratie’ moderne” (1999).

Is it OK nowadays? Oh, we still have Brexit & Trump. And I’ll sum it up quickly on France’s democratic status with this saying from Charles de Gaulle: “How could you rule a country that has 258 different kinds of cheeses?” — cultural issue here.

What is the designer’s role in a Smart City?

The common picture of Smart Cities involves sensors everywhere, renewable energy, monitored consumption, easy electric transportation and so on. This is the data-City, where flows of information are going to … well … I don’t know. Use more electronic products to regulate energy? (ref. & ref.) Overwhelm citizens of data so they don’t even want to think about it anymore? Track behaviors? Create more data based services to get more money?

I like to think that the virtue of the designer is to be able to not only be a translator but also to be critical and speculative in an expert-to-expert or expert-to-user discussion. I mean that also in a culture way considering the very wide amount of cultures/bahviors we can encounter in the City space. So when we are thinking about the City as the way we live and organize ourselves together, the designer prove its value in questioning the stakes and forcing the impacts measurements.

When it comes to design for Smart Cities and Democracy, the designer should question those three terms in the beginning and not be shy about doing politics.

Why does a City needs to be Smart?

What is the value of the City?

How to be Smart?

What is a Democracy?

Which are its downsides and how to try to fix them?

Does the value of the City lies on its utilities? Or maybe its employers? Or its inhabitants? Of course the first pivot point is its inhabitants. We don’t live for our job, the job allows us to live. Another set of questioning, with the citizens:

What are people doing in the City?

What is of great pain for them?

How do they interact with the services of the City?

What do they know about the City?

Are some inhabitants in a situation of inequality?

The ecological urge we are aware of drives us toward questioning the utility of technology. We can build environmental stations upon each building, monitoring air quality and weather, but if citizens actually breath down the street and not at 20m height, and if they already have an umbrella in their bag, all of this is simply useless and waste. At least it can still be obscure to them, the “maths” behind the tools and what they mean. Two ways the designer can act in that sense: questioning the deepest meaning & impact of the project, and involving every citizen / stakeholder in the project. The Collective Intelligence — using actual inhabitants knowledge about the City and their neighborhood — seems like a good way to imply citizens in the City analysis & morphing process. Thinking in terms of implicative educational imlementation also helps the emergence of a strong Collective Intelligence. Technology is not the unique answer to all of our problems, it is only the low road.

When I meant speculative earlier I was preparing this: the designer as a storyteller has the power to create narratives. What if we considered every organisms within a particular City area as a complete citizen? Like fungi contributing equally to the balance of the City’s ecosystem compared to the human mayor? I do not want to promote a return to a natural state of life. This is more about the importance of questioning accordingly to humans needs. Yes, we actually need this fungi to live. And by the way nature is way more efficient than us when it comes to design and evaluation — not that it is perfect —, so why not implementing projects with it instead of electronics? (moss as a biological environmental sensor for example)

The last aspect that seems important to me when it comes to design, is the communication medium of course. In the City, where organization is very complex and multi layered, one interesting media to me is psychogeography, or the study of the sensitive effect of space on individuals’ behavior. This field brings another point of view on the mapping approach and can enrich other mapping strategies.

Can the Smart City rely more on feeling and well-being rather than data for the sake of it? Can we afford that technological low road on the long run or is it preferable to look for other other perspectives and bottom up solutions? The designer’s role is crucial to build a bottom up approach in complex environments, beyond expertise based practice and further toward implication and citizenship.

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