In the context of the OpenDoTT project which advances the understanding of open design seeking to develop a more trustworthy internet of things (IoT), the specific topic of my PhD research is that of the so-called Smart Cities. Since I arrived in Dundee last July I was able to get a taste of a wide range of critical takes on the field, reflect upon some common elements between them and how they relate to my own past experience, as well as learn about areas I want to explore further.
My starting point was, in fact, a hiatus of about a decade. Around 2009 and 2010 I have written a bit about smart cities, albeit very superficially and only in Portuguese. My main interest was not technology in itself, for I already felt the deployment of information systems and hardware in cities was arguably nothing new. From public lighting to policing and transportation systems, cities have often been the proving grounds for new technological developments, since way before the digital appeared. I was rather more interested then in understanding the potential role of experimental labs when associated with emergent urbanism and local communities.
We seem eager to trust in the appearance of things. All around us are things, machines, people, brands, companies, signs and symbols that say ‘Trust me by the way I appear to be’ and we proceed to attribute to these things various qualities that are derived solely based on their outward appearance. What does a policeman’s uniform say about the policeman? Nothing except that I must trust that he has authority. The banker, the chef, the lawyer and the stock broker take great pains to identify themselves by their attire. Brands spend hundreds of millions of dollars on creating and sustaining an image. We wear certain kinds of clothing to show that we belong to a particular group or community. We buy nice things for our apartments and paint our houses so that we do not appear to be poor or unkempt.
How does trust show up in everyday life and culture? Think of an example of a story or experience from your life or culture that talks about perceptions of trust.
I finally landed at London Heathrow Airport, after a delayed flight from Barcelona, Spain, where I was attending the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) 63 meeting. I navigated my way to the citizenM Hotel through the London Underground, at the witching hour of 01:03am. All I wanted to do was take a warm shower and get some rest. But then I saw an iPad next to my bed, with an interface showing instructions on how to “control” the features in my room – switch on the TV, adjust lights according to my mood, set the temperature, open/close the window blinds, set an alarm, play music and so much more. The iPad felt like the much needed “welcome home”; how could I say no? I was Citizen Sarah, Citizen 547.
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.
The University of Dundee and Mozilla have launched a new and innovative PhD programme exploring how to build a more open, secure and trustworthy Internet of Things.
The OpenDoTT (Open Design of Trusted Things) scheme will train technologists, designers, and researchers to create and advocate for safe connected products and is made possible by €1.5m in funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.