City Smarts: An App for Civic Engagement

City Smarts: An App for Civic Engagement

Growing up in a large messy city—taking public transportation to school, walking to a friend’s house in the next neighborhood, running errands for my mother, watching a game of street cricket—, I picked up cues to negotiate crowded streets and sidewalks, and the hustle of public space. I learned how to enjoy, watch out and keep myself safe, and get to know the culture and politics of the city with my eyes, hands, feet, ears, and nose. I grew “city smarts” by physically engaging the city.

Contemporary plans for “smart cities” routinely ignore or intentionally undermine this valuable city-learning experience. Smart cites are not about city smarts.

But how do you get this idea across to undergraduate students who walk around glued to their “smart” devices? Teaching a course titled The City in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I have come to terms with the fact that most of my students did not grow up in large cities, and even if they did, much of their expectations and their social life is inside those smart devices. So to engage students I choose to integrate these smart devices into course assignments. I want them to consider what constitutes “city smarts” as opposed to a “smart city,” by using a smart device.

Figure 1. UrImaginist schematics: (a) acquisition of image; (b) determination of available surface; (c) canvas generated from selected surface; (d) doodles by the user. Copyright: Sicheng Wang, 2019.

The City in History, named after Lewis Mumford’s well-known book, takes on the challenge of learning about cities in today’s global context. In winter 2019 in the last segment of the course dealing with modern/contemporary cities I gave the students a “city-app” assignment. They were asked to present the concept for an app (a software that is downloadable on mobile phones/tablets) to facilitate public life and empower citizens. 

I prefaced the assignment with a discussion of the role of technology in city imagination, urging students to think about power and agency in a city, and with whom it resides, and where it resides. Cities are after all defined by their technological infrastructures. Indeed, the link between cities and technological infrastructure is as old as the history of cities. Contemporary cities, however, have seen an unsurpassed intensification of technology and an unprecedented reliance on technological means to govern, maintain, produce, exchange, consume, and communicate. The contemporary use of the term “smart city,” referring to the use of digital technology and data in running cities turns this reliance on technology into (1) an instrument of corporate hegemony and profit; (2) corporatization of city governance; (3) a mode to increase surveillance of citizens; (4) a channel to communicate and process information promptly; (5) a means to improve the delivery of services and reduce the time it takes to do so; (6) a system of spatial transformation that alters the fundamental conditions of “private” and “public” spaces.

We don’t need smart cities; we need to be smart about cities.

The so-called “efficiency” of smart cities is a matter of debate, and how these new modes of governance and control impact the experience of living in cities is worth our collective attention. Most critiques of smart cities focus on the consequences of the loss of data privacy, the diminution of the city residents’ ability to control how a city is governed and experienced, and the attrition of “public space” and “public life” in cities. So, if technologies empower and extend our reach, it is good to think about who does a technology empower. We should also ponder the means, as well as the cost, of empowerment: financial cost as well as social and political cost.

Figure 2. UrImaginist: the image viewed by the viewer with information and options for comments, viewing history, etc. Copyright: Sicheng Wang, 2019.

Students were asked to select a city—an actually existing city or urban agglomeration in any part of the world—, explore its history and contemporary condition, study the apps available for that city, and propose an app that would facilitate some aspect of public life in that city or the knowledge of life in that city. They were asked to think creatively about what could benefit the city/citizens, and make a new intervention. The app could be used to

(a) gather data

(b) analyze/process data to facilitate an activity, to intervene, or to draw inferences

(c) disseminate/report/communicate data

(d) or one or more of the preceding.

The assignment had three steps: a concept draft; peer review; revision and final submission.

The majority of the students did exceptionally well with providing feedback to their peers, and in a short span of four weeks they came up with some very creative ideas. The most imaginative one dealt with the visual culture of public space. Taking Beijing as a case study, Sicheng Wang, a junior in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, wrote about the ubiquity of the Chinese state’s political propaganda in the post-Maoist period.[1]

The state’s “hegemony of expression” in the public domain, comprising large scale, uniformly designed party slogans on walls, fences of construction sites, and billboards, is the subject of Sicheng’s app concept. Specifically, he pointed out that not only do such political propaganda occupy public space, but “marks it as non-infringeable” as any attempt to damage or remove such posters might be deemed as dissidence. The propaganda thus “suppresses the possibility that members of a community modify their environment, as an important form of civic engagement and autonomy,” he noted. The app, named UrImaginist, is designed as a tool that would restore to the city resident or visitor the possibility of imagining public space differently than presented by the state. The app would allow users to create sketches on a touch-screen device that could be mapped onto surfaces in the real world with augmented reality (AR). The following sketches by Sicheng explain how the app is projected to function (figures 1-3).

Peer-review of the app proposal, conducted by Tony Palomares, a senior in the Department of History of Art and Architecture, elicited concerns over security and the role of creativity and civic participation such an app might support. The potential users, Sicheng pointed out, could be artists, designers, architects, grassroot activists, or anyone wishing to negotiate the excessive visual burden of state propaganda with an expressive tool. He expressed the hope that the “intrinsic playfulness” of the “process of drawing and sharing” would encourage those who might not otherwise participate in the civic realm.

Figure 3. UrImaginist: the main interface with embedded map. 1: System push-message notifying drawings nearby; 2: marks indicating drawings on map; 3: button to enter camera mode as shown in Figures 1 and 2; 4: settings menu; 5: search for drawings by location, author, title or date. Copyright: Sicheng Wang, 2019.

Political posters and wall-writing have a much longer history and have historically functioned to challenge state authority, rather than to conform to state authority. Elsewhere I have discussed the relation between the materiality of public space and political freedom by looking at cases where the state prohibits wallwriting and political posters.[2] Wallwriting executed by dissidents and rival political parties challenges the state’s sole claim to determine the parameters of political-civic space by altering its materiality: the wall is opened up as a space of intervention, dialogue, and change. It exceeds appropriation of public space to become the creation of a new space of reading in public. Such refutation of the state’s monopoly on the visual culture of public space requires augmenting a new spatial imagination. Sicheng Wang’s UrImaginist app, in projecting the creation of a virtual space in which users might assume a kind of civic agency, is a potentially powerful way to engage in that habit of spatial imagination, to exercise city smarts.

We don’t need smart cities; we need to be smart about cities. We need city smarts, with and without smart devices.



[1] Sicheng Wang, “UrImaginist: Redesigning the Political Space in a Virtual Realm,” Paper for The City in History course, History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara, Winter 2019.

[2] Swati Chattopadhyay, “Writing on the Walls,” Unlearning the City: Infrastructure in a New Optical Field (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). Also see Julie Peteet, “The Writings on the Walls: The Graffiti of the Intifada,” Cultural Anthropology 11, no 2 (May 1996): 139-59.

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