Colonising the public? Smart street furniture and the techno-politics of urban media

Image courtesy of Antoine Hubert, Creative Commons

Friday 6 September, 3.00pm – 4.30pm

MECO Seminar Room, S226, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney

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This seminar introduces the Smart Publics research collaboration between the University of Sydney and the University of Glasgow on the social, design, and governance implications of smart street furniture, drawing on fieldwork in Glasgow, London and New York. We situate this research in a critical account of the privatisation of public space in cities and the role of smart urbanism as a trend accelerator. We explore these issues in the context of smart upgrades to street furniture like kiosks and benches, which are hybrid urban media objects purportedly installed to address barriers of access to information-communication networks. Yet we argue that these emerging forms of street furniture raise serious risks related to surveillance, data harvesting, and targeted advertising—which are unevenly distributed among users. We also outline how their installation changes city flows and social interactions, and how their ownership challenges the role of local government in overseeing public objects and spaces. We conclude by considering the historical development of (smart) street furniture as translations from earlier objects in public space such as phone booths and benches which mediate urban life, craft urban publics, and are adapted and resisted by users.

Justine Humphry is a Lecturer in Digital Cultures in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney and co-lead of theSmart publics University of Sydney-University of Glasgow research partnership. Her research is on the cultures and politics of mobile media and smart technology in everyday life with a focus on digital inequalities, mediated publics and marginalised media use. Justine has studied mobile communication and homelessness extensively and has conducted collaborative research on mobile antiracism apps in Australia, France and the United Kingdom. Her current projects involve researching smart street furniture in New York, Glasgow and London.

Jathan Sadowski is a postdoctoral research fellow in smart cities in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. His work critically analyses the political economy of digital technologies that are data-driven, networked, and automated. His current projects include an ethnography with a city government on the process and politics of planning smart initiatives. Jathan’s book – Too Smart: How Digital Capitalism is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives, and Taking Over the World – will be published in 2020 by The MIT Press.

Chris Chesher is a Senior Lecturer in Digital Cultures in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney. His current research focuses on the interplay between smart home and smart city technologies: the role of voice in smart speakers and voice assistants; the digitisation of real estate advertising; the global introduction of smart street furniture; and smart technologies at the interface of private and public spaces. He is also working on a collaboration with the Sydney Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems, and on a book called Invocational Media.

Sophia Maalsen is a lecturer in urbanism and former IB Fell postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney. Her research addresses the increasing digital mediation of housing and alternative forms of housing, including the increase in tenure forms such as share housing across all age groups. Maalsen also researches practices of smart urbanism and is currently on two grants that look at how smart urban practices and governance materialises in different contexts. Prior to joining the University of Sydney, Sophia was a postdoctoral researcher on the EU funded Programmable City Project where she investigated the digital transformation of cities and urban governance. Her particular expertise is in understanding the intersection of the material, digital and the human and how this effects lived experience. She is the author of The Social Life of Sound (2019, Palgrave MacMillan).