Avoiding blunders, splintering and exclusion in smart cities

Any social or cultural disconnect can have serious consequences for city planning

The Future Cities Catapult are hosting an interesting breakfast briefing next week on ‘inadvertent exclusion’ in smart cities. Here’s the pitch:

As more and more smart technologies are incorporated into the fabric of our cities, it has become increasingly pressing to ensure that those technologies reach the audiences they are intended to reach.

This presentation introduces the concept of ‘inadvertent exclusion’, where potential users or consumers of smart city technologies are found not to engage with the possibilities that those smart initiatives can offer. It is argued that this may be the result of a misunderstanding of the importance of social difference in the way that cities work.

The research is based on the ESRC-funded project Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes. The project asks how people in a smart city engage with smart technologies, and what difference the smart city makes.

These are important questions. They also remind me of two related pieces of work. The first is the notion of ‘splintering urbanism’, whereby urban infrastructure can drive social and spatial inequality. The book is full of examples of both deliberate and inadvertent boundaries:

In Baltimore… [urban geographer] David Harvey notes the paradox that, whilst African American women cross these boundaries daily to clean some of the world’s most famous hospitals (for example Johns Hopkins), they are unable to access health services when they are ill because of a lack of health insurance. Meanwhile “life expectancy in the immediate environs of these internationally renowned hospital facilities is among the lowest in the nation and comparable to many of the poorer countries of the world”.

The second is the 2013 book, The Blunders of our Governments. If you don’t have time to read the book, this review in the Guardian is helpful. It’s worth quoting in full this explanation of how many blunders arise from a disconnect born from ignorance or social and cultural divides:

The causes of the blunders were numerous. In many cases, ministers and their senior officials were simply ignorant – King and Crewe politely call it “cultural disconnect” – of how large sections of the population lived from day to day. The Tories had no inkling that, if sent a poll tax bill of several hundred pounds, some families, and particularly elderly couples, would not be able to pay. “Well, they could always sell a picture,” suggested Nicholas Ridley, the then environment secretary and the son of a viscount, apparently in all seriousness.

But Labour has become almost equally disconnected from real life, with its frontbenchers and advisers increasingly drawn from a cohort that went from school to university (usually Oxbridge) to Westminster thinktank without ever working in a retail store, a hamburger joint or a benefit office. Its tax credits scheme involved paying out weekly or monthly a sum that was determined annually.

Millions of people short of money, many of whom had never previously completed a tax return, had to fill out complex forms about their previous year’s earnings, estimate earnings for the following year and notify the authorities each time their circumstances changed. The scheme, as the head of the Inland Revenue admitted, went “spectacularly wrong”.

This month I begin a tour looking at the role of universities in smart cities in eight European countries, for an exciting research project commissioned by the British Council. One question I’ll be trying to answer is how universities may be able to help prevent blunders, exclusion and splintering in the development of smart cities. If you’re working on smart cities, please get in touch!

(Photo credit)

The six stages of engagement

Looking beyond the financial benefits of university engagement

Over the past couple of months I’ve given several presentations on university engagement in cities (slides below from a workshop in South Africa). One of the things I like to test with the audience is a sliding scale I’ve developed1 of why universities choose to engage with local communities, businesses and other organisations:

1. Financial incentives
2. Government push through policy (e.g. for knowledge transfer)
3. Branding; demonstrating social relevance
4. Enlightened self interest
5. Public/local/civic duty; (rediscovering) a historic mission
6. A strategic ‘urban turn’

The theory is that, over time, many universities have moved from point one – choosing to engage locally because of perceived or actual financial benefits – to point five – a sense that engagement is part of the duty of the institution. The route is rarely a straightforward journey through all five, and in the messy reality of day-to-day engagement many stages will look remarkably similar.

Between financial incentives and civic duty we have universities responding to government policy pushes (point two), described well by the likes of Rhiannon Pugh and colleagues regarding initiatives such as Growth Hubs in the UK.

Point three – engagement as a means to improving an institution’s branding and demonstrating social relevance – is often a scrambled response to universities coming under fire (usually from the press) for being societally irrelevant or out of touch.

Enlightened self interest, point four, is the recognition that the fortunes of a university are often closely intertwined with the health of its locality.

Point five is having civic duty at the heart of the university mission. This is garnering a lot of attention in the UK through the likes of the UPP Civic University Commission but, for many universities, is aspirational at present.

Point six I’ve written about extensively on this blog. It combines points one to five, and proposes that the relationship between universities and cities is evolving. For some universities, the city has become a greater strategic concern and opportunity. There is evidence of universities slowly undertaking an ‘inward’ or local turn, from nation to city – for example university leaders prioritising city trade delegations over national ones – and institutions looking to take advantage of the globalisation of urbanisation and responding to the narrative over the ‘rise of cities’ and their interconnectedness. At the same time, universities themselves become vehicles for cities to achieve their goals – but I’ll save this for another post.

Locating the Urban University slides

Finding Dan | Dan Grinwis


  1. With many influences, who shouldn’t be held accountable for my findings. Much of this thinking was prompted by an article by van Schalkwyk & George de Lange (The engaged university and the specificity of place: The case of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in the journal Development Southern Africa) and their call for ‘the delegitimisation of one form of university-community engagement that values exchange with external communities for the financial benefit of the university (and is tenuously linked to the core functions of the university) and the institutionalisation of a form of university-community engagement that values place-specific development (while simultaneously strengthening teaching and research).’ A second nod to the work of Jean-Paul Addie at Georgia State University (and convener of the Cape Town workshop) whose research on rethinking the urban university has been particularly influential. 

The city as a focus for university internationalisation

New article in Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education

Urban universities are increasingly framing their internationalisation activity through the lens of their city. Two parallel narratives help explain this shift: (1) a renewed acceptance of the importance of the local environment for university success in attracting staff and students and (2) the growing influence of cities as international actors.

Read more in my short academic article published in Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. I have 50 free copies available by clicking this link; after these are gone it will revert to a paywall (unless you have access through an academic institution).

Or you can read the original British Council report (or the even more concise summary in The Conversation).

In other news, the University of Toronto is launching a new ‘School of Cities’ that will ‘convene urban-focused researchers, educators, students, practitioners, and the general public to explore and address complex urban challenges’. This is particularly interesting in light of my research there last year, and the school joins a growing number of academic centres or institutes focused on global challenges and cities (three centres in the UK were recently established through the Global Challenges Research Fund – see this PDF). The Toronto school is modelled on LSE Cities (‘we don’t have that kind of thing in Toronto right now’).

 
Photo:Fahrul Azmi

Academic writing workflow: how to read lots as efficiently as possible

A break from our regular programming, this is the second in an occasional series on processes and tools (first post on creating your own maps here).

Here’s my academic writing workflow: it allows me to quickly pull together information from dozens of articles into a structured format that allows new ideas and connections to form. It won’t work for everyone, although there is plenty of scope for customisation.

1. Pulling everything together

I won’t go into great detail here, but I collect all my research materials together first. For me, this is PDFs of articles, reports, and book chapters. I use Papers for Mac and group everything into project folders, although there are plenty of other research managers: Zotero and Mendeley are free. Google Scholar is invaluable for sourcing articles (Papers allows you to search Google Scholar and import articles from within the application).

papers
Example screenshot of Papers for Mac: note the highlighted PDF

2. Highlighting and commenting

I now read through everything in rough order of how important I think the article will be. This means later articles can be skim read (when concentration levels are lower) to pick up additional insight or nuance. Whilst reading I highlight relevant paragraphs or sentences – as less is better try to avoid highlighting entire pages – and add comments with any thoughts or ideas. Papers has this function built in; an application like Skim (open source for Mac) can also do this.

3. Exporting and tagging notes

All highlights are now exported as plain text files – one per article or report, or a single file with all highlights across all readings. The beauty of highlighting in an application like Papers or Skim is the automatic inclusion of page numbers and other bibliographic information in the exported file.

Depending on the complexity of the project, I may just export all the notes as one giant text file, print this, and start writing. However, in more advanced literature reviews, for example, an extra step is helpful. In this case, I export each reading as an individual file (one click in Papers) and import these into TAMS Analyzer, an excellent open-source Mac application for qualitative text analysis. Effective use of TAMS Analyzer is a post in itself, but the documentation is fairly solid.

I then work through my imported highlights, and tag them. Usually this will be within 4-5 headings that will naturally emerge from the initial reading: for a recent review of universities and place, for example, I had the headings ‘leadership’, ‘international’, ‘regional’, ‘urban’ and ‘conclusions’. Finally, with a couple of clicks, TAMS Analyzer can generate a table with headings at the top, and all of the highlights below – one box per highlight. The source name – drawn from the plain text export of your initial highlights – is appended (usually Author-Year).

The great benefit of this extra step is a single file that can easily contain insight and analysis from twenty or thirty articles (or more). Instead of thirty print outs, you have one – admittedly quite big – file with several thematic groupings, each with a mixture of authors and sources. This makes writing much, much easier.

tams output
HTML output from TAMS Analyzer: you can reformat so it’s easier to print (and read) 

4. Writing

Again, I won’t go into this too much, as most people have their own tools and preferred way of working. I use Ulysses for Mac, which works fantastically for academic writing (more here). Citations are easily managed via Papers (or any other research manager), which sorts all the references and bibliographic information once the final text is exported into Word. Using the Magic Citations tool you insert references as you write (the source name, Author-Year, is in your table from step three).

I work through the table of notes as I write, often sequentially by thematic heading. This has two main benefits: you’re drawing on notes ordered by theme not author, so you naturally avoid paragraphs with multiple citations from the same source. Second, with excerpts from many sources sitting next to each other in the table, you make new connections between different authors and ideas. Any notes or comments you made on the initial read through are also included.

magic citations
Papers’ Magic Citations tool used in Ulysses

Concluding comments

This workflow mimics a paper method I used years ago, which took a lot more time (and a lot more paper). Some may prefer to read from paper copies – I tend to print just the most important articles. Others prefer to write as they read.

For those working outside the social sciences this workflow may not work so well – but I’d be interested to test this. It doesn’t work so well with books unless you have a PDF version, although these are often cumbersome. I tend to take notes on books outside of Papers, and save these as a text file to be used in step three.

Lastly, the flow in workflow is important. If you wait too long between the first few stages and stage four (writing) you begin to lose the connections you form when you make the initial highlights. The wider context of selected sentences is lost, and you forget why you highlighted certain sections in the first place.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash