Things in the City

It’s been a little over four months since I moved to Dundee from Brazil. Besides the sort of activity more commonly associated with research—reading and taking notes, writing down findings and perceived gaps, discussing ideas and planning field exercises—I have engaged in a kind of meta-research. My investigation topic being ‘smart cities’, the very fact that I have moved with my family to a city we haven’t even visited beforehand offered—is offering—good insight into what one often takes for granted when thinking about cities. Mobility, education, utilities, many aspects of city life could arguably be improved to better serve its citizens. The only problem is, ‘improving’ means different—often controversial—things to different people. When it comes to research then, some choices must be made.

Over this period, I went back to using a blog to document ongoing research. I have also collected a few hundred references about a growing number of themes related to cities, technology, things, and society. Part of them came from projects I was previously involved with. Others came from discussions with colleagues, supervisors and members of the OpenDoTT consortium. Equally fruitful was the first trip of my PhD research when I attended a pretty relevant conference in Rotterdam and a festival in Berlin.

In the process, something started to emerge that seems to narrow down my research focus moving forward. I gravitate towards authors who see the smart city as a contentious space in which several contradictions of our times are reflected. The predominance of corporate interests in municipal matters and its ideological assumptions must be challenged. New developments should allow cities and their populations to decide for themselves how better to manage local services and resources.

I am particularly interested in one area that, despite being superficially present when one starts reading about smart cities, is often being wrongly treated as merely a technical issue to be solved by engineers and corporations. That area is solid waste. Or, as I’m trying to frame in my research, whatever happens to things—material objects, in this case—after they are not wanted anymore. Instead of taking for granted that waste management systems should seek to more efficiently remove materials from households and companies, and make them disappear from the city, I want to discuss some aspects further.

How about we create ways to make waste more rather than less visible in the city? Can waste be understood as a powerful visual marker to diagnose the health of a city? How does waste relate to value, and how that is taken into account in current waste management systems? What can we learn from the various experiments involving urban communities in collecting and sorting materials? Can fabrication technologies, maker spaces, tool libraries, and cooperative settings be used to allow citizens themselves to play a part in how waste is handled in the smart city?

In the coming months I’ll be performing some experiments to better understand those issues, and how I can use my research period to do something meaningful about it.