Beyond the Silicon Valley story: An ethnographic approach to digital workers’ discursive production of smart cities

Victoria Tovfigh

Technologies and stories about how technologies can help cities circulate rapidly and globally. App-based services, entrepreneurial start-ups, and innovative tech-companies are allegedly the answer to urban challenges. But do digital workers —typically seen as crucial in transforming cities according to Silicon Valley’s recipe— really think, talk, and act accordingly? PhD candidate Mariana Fried is honored with an NWO PhDs in the Humanities to research and answer this question in the coming five years.

This ERMeCC research project will be supervised by promotor Susanne Janssen and co-promotors Isabel Awad and Jiska Engelbert and fits perfectly into the Vital Cities and Citizens initiative. 

Today’s smart city
Cities across the world promise to solve social and economic challenges by integrating
digital technologies, data-collecting sensors, and an entrepreneurial innovative ecosystem into urban life. After more than ten years of gaining attention among local governments, transnational institutions, the (tech) industry, and academia, the ‘smart city’ has consolidated a prominent place on the global urban agenda. What constitutes today’s ‘smart cities’ is not only a set of technologies but also the widely circulated texts, events, competitions, rankings, and stories about the things that technology can do for urban life.

The smart city discourse circulated by corporate and policy actors arguably celebrates business-led technological innovation as the solution to all urban problems and the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley as worth replicating everywhere else. The ubiquity of app-based services, start-up incubators, and tech-companies seems to suggest that this version of the smart city has spread to cities and citizens around the world. But there is an urgent need to understand how it is actually (re)interpreted and (re)produced by actors in their everyday lived local experiences in cities.

Alternative, local versions of the smart city
This project fills that gap by exploring the alternative, local versions of the smart city that three key types of digital workers produce in their (discursive) practices. Tech company employees, digital startup entrepreneurs, and on-demand platform workers are the very actors whose job is to create and conduct solutions for the smart city. Rather than assuming that they passively receive and mirror the technocratic and entrepreneurial discourse, this project considers them as capable of reflecting about, strategically adapt to, be critically aware of, and/or ironically reproduce smart city discourses. Uncovering the ways in which digital workers (re)interpret and (re)produce discourses about the role of technology in the city and urban smartness makes way for discovering what other kinds of smart city are imaginable and being imagined in local contexts, beyond the Silicon Valley story.

Mariana Fried: “In times of heightened technological optimism (but also of deterministic concerns), observing and listening to the digital workers who daily shape the 'smart city', as well as the discourses about it, is a much-needed task if we are to discover possible fairer relationships between urban life and technology. Preparing for this round of grants was in itself a journey full of learning opportunities, and I can only look forward with enthusiasm to the next challenges and learning experiences that the next few years of my PhD at ESHCC will bring.”

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