UTFacultiesETEventsPhD Defence Anouk Geenen | Constructive Controversies - Redesigning democratic debate and ethical deliberation in the smart city

PhD Defence Anouk Geenen | Constructive Controversies - Redesigning democratic debate and ethical deliberation in the smart city

Constructive Controversies - Redesigning democratic debate and ethical deliberation in the smart city

The PhD Defence of Anouk Geenen will take place in the Waaier building of the University of Twente and can be followed by a live stream.
Live Stream

Anouk Geenen is a PhD student in the department Human Centered Design. (Co)Promotors are prof.dr.ir. M.C. van der Voort and dr. D. Ozkaramanli-Leerkes from the faculty Engineering Technology and prof.dr.ir. P.P.C.C. verbeek UvA/UT faculty Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences.

This research dives into the concept of socio-technical controversies: conflicts that follow from the complex interaction between the social and technical aspects of society. It specifically focuses on socio-technical controversies in the smart city context. The association with controversies is often negative, and they are rather avoided then celebrated. However, controversies reveal what is at stake when introducing technology in the urban sphere. In other words, controversies are places where politics ‘happens’: a plurality of perspectives comes together, values are negotiated and new social practices emerge, forming spaces of self-organized participation and value-assessment. In this thesis, therefore, I suggest to embrace controversies as entry points to a more democratic debate on smart cities. Moreover, I argue that controversies allow a re-entering of public values into this democratic debate. By understanding controversies as resource rather than a burden, I aim to enhance the democratic debate on smart cities with a stronger emphasis on the values at stake that ignite the issues of importance. Through operationalizing controversies, I seek to open up space for debate, where diverse perspectives and a plurality of values can co-exist and lead to creative yet critical resolutions. To achieve this, I propose design as a means to operationalize socio-technical controversies. By making issues visible and experiential, design helps to create agonistic public spaces that aim at constructively dealing with disagreements without necessarily resolving conflict.

The research concerns a societal need and scientific question in interaction with each other – discussing democratic participation in relation to the smart city raises research questions at the intersection of the ethics of technology, political theory and public debate, which are both theoretical and practical in nature. This type of research topic can then only be meaningfully addressed through a transdisciplinary approach, in which collaboration and knowledge exchange between academic and societal partners takes place. As a result, this thesis embodies the theoretical conceptualization of controversies, whilst incorporating their societal character and engaging input from stakeholder representing the quadruple helix: research, government, industry and civil society.

The main goal of this thesis is to explore and enable the constructive use of socio-technical controversies, by means of design approaches, in order to stimulate democratic debate and ethical deliberation about smart cities. In order to achieve this goal, I divide the research into three steps that correspond to three parts of the thesis.

To start, part A of this thesis deepens the theoretical understanding of controversies. In Chapter 2, I formulate a threefold potential of controversies to enhance ethical deliberation, civic engagement and alternative imaginations. Next, in Chapter 2 I offer a deeper analytical understanding of controversies and their anatomy, by understanding controversies as multi-dimensional value-expressions with micro (individual), meso (social) and macro (societal) level expressions, and conflicts both within and across these levels.

Part B of this thesis describes the Research-through-Design process and two resulting interventions to work with socio-technical controversies. These interventions provide the infrastructure to bring publics, issues and values together, and allow participants to meaningfully navigate and discuss the value conflicts that constitute controversies. In Chapter 4, I present the ‘Network of Conflicts’ approach, which consists of a combination of scenario-based, participatory and systemic design techniques to unpack, navigate and address socio-technical controversies. This Network of Conflicts is a visual mapping of a controversy, and builds on the insights from Chapter 3 regarding the multi-dimensional value conflicts that shape controversies. The findings show that making controversies accessible by dissecting them into their formative elements and interconnections – values and value conflicts – helps to provide a setting where differences among multiple actors become explicit, and therefore, negotiable. Next, in Chapter 5, I build on speculative design to present and evaluate the use of an interactive, design intervention, Future Frictions, to promote a discussion on public values and the societal impact of smart city technology. Through relatable future scenarios in the form of a neighborhood narrative and interactions with neighbors, Future Frictions makes participants become acquainted with multiple perspectives and various forms of societal impacts around urban technology. I show that Future Friction’s three central features, 1) relatability, 2) plurality and 3) ambiguity, create the setting for audiences to empathize and engage with value conflicts, stimulate their imagination beyond externally formulated urban visions and formulate their own questions, issues, and matters-of-concern.

Part C presents the reflective part of this thesis. Throughout this transdisciplinary research, design takes a central position. In Chapter 6, I challenge and deepen this positioning in order to better clarify the contribution of design. This leads to the formulation of five roles for design in transdisciplinary collaborations: (1) generator; (2) communicator; (3) facilitator; (4) mediator and (5) provocateur. I argue that the latter two roles, are the most recent and the most suitable roles in transdisciplinary settings, yet also the most challenging. Finally, Chapter 7 concludes how this thesis motivated, theorized, and operationalized socio-technical controversies as a constructive concept relevant for rethinking democratic debate and ethical deliberation in smart cities, and how it made the potential of controversies accessible through design approaches.

This dissertation contributes to the study of socio-technical controversies by understanding them as multi-dimensional contestations about public values. This understanding enables the connection between the political concepts of issues and publics, with the ethical concept of values. As a result, this work centralizes public’s values and value conflicts in the democratic debate. Consequently, this facilitates the integration of ethical deliberation into democratic ways of thinking about the future of the city. This integration is unequivocally made possible through means of design approaches that render visual and experiential representations of the values and conflicts at hand, thereby enable to ‘make things public’. It is through design that the values and value conflicts become explicit, visible and experiential, and therefor available for public debate. The developed design interventions serve as Latourian things around which publics can gather to (re)negotiate public’s values and identify the issues at stake in the smart city.