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Guest Blog from Professor Gillian Rose who provides a social geography perspective

last modified Aug 08, 2018 10:05 AM
The CDBB programme is actively multi-disciplinary to engage with ideas and perspectives beyond digital technology and construction. Gillian Rose, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oxford, and a member of the CDBB Expert Research Panel, considers the digital built environment through the lens of social geography.

As a social scientist I am interested in the spatial patterns of human settlements, social processes and the way towns and cities are understood and experienced. I am particularly interested in cities as very complex places where all sorts of different people, infrastructures and ideas converge.

My research considers the ways people make sense of the ideas and feelings they have in relation to the built environment and how they understand different sorts of urban spaces. Cities are heavily culturally mediated. A lot of our ideas about what a city is or should be are learnt from books and films or social media and reports in the news. As a social geographer I look at how urban spaces are constructed rather than simply being there as objects that people can see and experience in some sort of objective and neutral way.

Social geographers are engaging with the impact of the digital technologies that are ever present in the context of cities in a number of ways. We are taking up questions of digital in relation to cities and the built environment to consider three significant areas. The first is thinking about digital data and technologies as a kind of infrastructure that underpins the way cities are managed and run. This includes physical assets too – the provision of cables, building the servers and supplying the Wi-Fi signal required for digital technology to work.

The second area of focus is big data. Currently there is a huge drive to make cities run more efficiently by employing data to increase energy efficiency and inform asset management decisions, to deliver better services, improve transport systems and reduce traffic congestion; data enables city systems to be more responsive to real-time conditions. But what sorts of spatial and social patterns are implicit in that data, and what sorts of geographies does it produce?

But to me, the most interesting topic related to the use of digital technologies is how people respond to new tech. That's what I would call a question of culture: how are people making sense of these new devices? What kinds of meaning are they giving them, and what are they therefore doing with them? When a new technology arrives it is not only the technical activity that enables and encourages people to use it. There is a lot of cultural work that happens; people have to make sense of new tech – they need to see the potential benefits and start engaging with it.

For example, a lot of effort goes into creating app interface design to enable this engagement. Search smart cities on YouTube and there are numerous videos created to tell us what a marvellous thing a smart city is going to be, with slick computer images showing us what new smart neighbourhoods will look like. Large companies clearly feel these films need to be made and the images emphasise the flow of data and the seamless mobility of transport and people. These videos are selling a way of being in the city that is about constant motion and often there is a focus on leisure rather than work. It is a selective vision of what urban life will be. 

However, I think the only certain thing we can say about future city life is that it won’t be anything like these videos! It will be messy, dirty and complicated. Unless we have radical provision of renewable energy sources there are going to be power cuts. Also what happens if a city is hacked, if someone gets into the traffic light controls or the water system supply?

And perhaps most importantly, not everyone is going to agree on the best way forward. Concerns are being expressed about the ownership of data, for example; while some 'smart cities' are using big data to analyse and shift what is happening in urban environments, there's also a lot of fear about surveillance and privacy (think about the Black Mirror series on Netflix). Data ownership is a very complex subject and I think the problem is we don’t have any precedents for it, so there needs to be much more public debate about the governance of data and how it might work.

There is a lot going on to interpret all this new technology and its associated changes and we are still at a relatively early stage in understanding how data and digital technologies are being used, and the ways in which they could and should be used. This is why bringing the cultural perspective to the discussion is so important. The urban digital space, where the social, physical and cultural come together, is extremely complicated because people have very different ideas and there are numerous stakeholders involved. Actual consequences will depend on how people interpret the changes that are taking place.

And the historians of tech will argue that you never really know what people will do with technology. The classic example is when mobile phones first came on to the market and the facility to type a message on the screen was apparently only designed in for the engineers to test the network. But, of course, as soon as the mobile phones were released people started texting. People are very creative and inventive which can have all sorts of consequences. There are lots of examples of grassroots activity where communities are generating robust data to demand change to, for example, reduce air pollution. Some people are taking tech into their own hands. 

I think the future is profoundly unpredictable. Digital technology is only a tool. Unless there is a policy and culture where we discuss questions of data justice and ethics and think of cities being run for the good of communities and neighbourhoods rather than just for the good of developers and tech companies then we will end up with a divided and fractious environment.

Contact: Gillian Rose, Professor of Human Geography, University of Oxford

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Welcome to the Centre for Digital Built Britain.  

The Centre for Digital Built Britain is a partnership between the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the University of Cambridge to understand how the construction and infrastructure sectors could use a digital approach to better design, build, operate, and integrate the built environment.

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Jan 16, 2019

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