research design research methodology anthropology

Smart cities, superficially understood as "using information technologies to make urban management more informed, efficient and easy", are a trend already being implemented in many parts of the world. Trying to persuade municipalities to use more IT is not something I feel my research would contribute much with. I prefer to focus on the question that was on the OpenDoTT call for this specific research topic: "can we create cities that are not just smarter, but kinder, fairer and more citizen-centred?".

There would be many ways to approach this question. Open design, trust and IoT could help create such a future on fields as diverse as traffic control or public safety. I however do not start from scratch. Along with a somewhat fragmented academic career, I have spent the last couple of decades as an activist, as well as working for nonprofits and occasionally advising public administration. I was even elected for a role in a public advisory committee on cultural policy at a local level where I used to live, and tried to create a similar body for science and technology.

There are some particular fields in which my experience could arguably be of use to ensure my PhD research has relevance and density. It could be digital culture and inclusion - building on the diversity of cultural manifestations and social consequences brought about by networked technologies. Or open science becoming common science, to orient the situated production of knowledge to the betterment of society. In none of these domains in which I had prior experience though is the relation between technology and urban issues as direct as in waste. In the past I have worked both on community initiatives as well as on a national level policy (in Brazil) related to solid waste. This theme may be even more relevant as the world hopefully realises the need to shape futures that are greener while still inclusive. 2021 seems to show this perspective is returning to a global agenda - in Europe, in the USA and by influence elsewhere in the world.

Surely, themes such as the circular economy, doughnut economy and zero waste are making their way into local and international policy. My first attempt then was to look into how those topics were being explored in smart city initiatives. Much to my disappointment, they are not. In general, whenever smart cities and waste are found in the same sentence, it seems to be about improving the efficiency of household waste collection.

I have then turned my research questions to focus on waste prevention rather than waste management. This change of emphasis has opened many possibilities. My research soon moved away from improving the collection and aiming at a larger proportion of discarded materials being sent to recycling, incineration or landfills. The well-known formulation “reduce, reuse, recycle” has indeed a hierarchy of precedence. We should first try to reduce consumption, then aim at reusing as much as possible of materials, and only recycle as a last resort. The reason to avoid recycling is that it's an industrial process that has itself environmental as well as economic impacts.

If I aim at reusing second-hand goods and materials, how does that ping back into my research on IoT, smart cities and open design? I expect to explore the idea of cities implementing their own reuse centres. I call them transformation labs. They would resemble makerspaces and fablabs, but with a conscious focus on reuse of materials rather than making or fabrication. And they would seek a wider user base. Very often, places around the so-called maker culture are home to white, middle class university students and are biased with a vocabulary stemming from the worlds of design and computer science. Transformation labs, on the other hand, would welcome any citizen willing to repair or transform objects. They would offer tools and equipment, space to store objects with potential reuse value, and promote unexpected encounters of people with diverse backgrounds. I see transformation labs becoming an integral part of local waste management systems, allowing communities to reap the benefits of becoming more savvy and knowledgeable on how to reuse things.

In April 2021 I am conducting an online participatory laboratory called to co-design ideas with about thirty participants from ten different countries. I was exposed to a number of initiatives that could be seen as prototypical transformation labs - from community repair events in South Sudan to reuse centres in Finland and dad’s workshop in the USA.

New technologies could emerge along with the transformation labs to enhance their ability to assess the potential value of discarded materials and act on that potential. The two prototypes I am working on - the universal registry of things and E-I, the evaluation interface, are telling examples. And I'm sure more could emerge as future transformation labs interact with technical schools, repair shops, zero waste communities and others.

A significant part of my research journey since 2019 has been an open inquiry on what my subject field would be. If I do not feel particularly attached to human-computer interaction where our project has its roots, I do acknowledge having learned from research methods used in the area. My topic of investigation however lies at a crossroads of fields: in between design, sustainability and urban studies, to be brief. I see myself living on that multiple boundary. That was also true in earlier stages of my academic career: my Master's was on a transdisciplinary programme, under the supervision of an anthropologist who had researched free software communities. I had also the opportunity to take part on an action-research project on open and collaborative science and development in a smaller city in Brazil that allowed me to interact with researchers on very diverse fields.

I keep looking for my academic home. Any suggestions?

Image: CHUTTERSNAP / Unsplash

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