SFB 1187 ›Medien der Kooperation‹ an der Universität Siegen
Werkstatt Medienpraxistheorie – Undoing Optimization: Lecture with Alison Powell (Pre-recorded)
Tuesday, 15 June 2021, 17:00 - 18:00

Undoing Optimization: The Smart City and Afterwards

This talk unpacks the theory and practice of the ‘smart city’ by charting the way that techno-systems thinking shapes the way city systems are designed. From both “top down” and “bottom up”, technology companies, cash-strapped governments and enthusiastic tech-savvy activists have celebrated and legitimated thinking about optimizing and rendering more efficient ever more features of urban life. However, networking, reinterpreting data and sensing may also create spaces for collective voice and some novel forms of civic participation. By telling a history of smart city projects from the past 20 years, the talk provides new ways of seeing urban entanglements, looking at the frictions and tensions surrounding the development and management of data commons, and showing how the development of solidarity and acceptance of hybridizing knowledge can reinvigorate ways to live together.

Throughout the past twenty years a series of different technological frameworks have underpinned the desirability of optimization and narrowed the forms of idealized civic participation. Spreading sensor systems across cities  makes surveillance cheaper and easier, and also normalizes and directs civic action towards ends that fit within overall frameworks of optimization. Undoing these dynamics requires an attention to friction and tension, as well as an attention to the potential other ways of understanding and connecting different forms of knowledge, including the datafied knowledge of sensing systems as well as other ways of knowing.

By learning from examples of ‘smart cities’ where data and knowledge unfold in tension, attending to the points at which human and biological knowledge disrupts and restructures technical knowledge, different ethics may be foregrounded, from hybridized knowledges negotiated around unstable data commons, to urban systems based on principles of ‘minimum viable datafication’. This paper explores how knowledge in a series of ‘smart city’ projects exceeds what can be optimized, from sensor systems that fail (but succeed in revealing living knowledge) to social movements like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives matter that exceed the capacity of the optimized city. Optimization can narrow the frameworks for civic action in cities  to align with technosocial systems and commercial expectations.  Its undoing promises a more contingent acknowledgement of urban relationships, intelligence and persistence.


Alison Powell is Associate  Professor in Media and Communications at the London School of Economics. She directs the JUST AI Network: Joining Up Society and Technology for AI, which is supported by the AHRC and in partnership with the Ada Lovelace Institute. Her research examines how people’s values influence the way technology is built, and how ethics in practice unfolds in technology design contexts. Alison’s work on open source projects, open hardware products  and community-based innovation has spanned the past fifteen years and her book Undoing Optimization: Civic Action and Smart Cities is published by Yale University Press. This book identifies how citizens engage with the promise of smart cities, and suggests that integrated and systems-based thinking is required to enhance the ethical potential of civic action using technology.

Her previous projects include the Horizon 2020-funded VIRT-EU, which examined ways to explore ethics in practice among Internet of Things developer communities and responsible innovation, and Understanding Automated Decisions, which considered the possibility and consequences of explaining how algorithms work. Alison also shares her insights about how people make knowledge about the city through ‘data walking’ – see www.datawalking.uk – and her public writing at http://www.alisonpowell.ca.

Lecture: 15. Juni 2021, 17-18 Uhr

Workshop: 16. Juni 2021, 11-12.30 Uhr


Lecture and Workshop will be in English.