Flexible Work, Flexible Work Spaces: The Emergence of the Coworking Industry in US Cities

by Thomas Lodato and Jennifer Clark

It is well established that flexible labor markets have changed work practices in the US. However, much less is known about how flexible work practices have produced and are producing flexible workspaces. Our research on coworking spaces illustrates how labor market flexibility has not only defined new employment practices but also created an emerging industry of coworking firms that provide workspaces — and workplace services — to a growing cohort of American workers for whom flexibility is a occupational norm rather than an occasional career condition.

Since the 1980s, economic geographers and industrial and labor relations scholars have documented how flexible work practices led to the reorganization of external and internal labor markets, redistribution of work processes, and renegotiation of employment regulations. These changes have affected how firms make strategic decisions about the spatial division of labor within the firm and how they deploy localized assets (work spaces) to manage an increasingly flexible workforce.

In our research we have constructed a database of 662 active coworking spaces within the continental United States.  From this sample, we analyzed the spatial distribution of coworking firms across the US.  From the set of 662 coworking spaces, we then created a geographically proportional subsample of 116 spaces to research more detailed information on the offerings, business models, and characteristics of coworking firms. Below we report our initial empirical findings.

Defining Coworking

First, defining coworking firms has been an empirical challenge for researchers. In an early study, Clay Spinuzzi argued that coworking — as a space — physicalizes the community and professional network many workers have been missing as freelancers, small business owners, and remote or contract workers. Here, we shift the approach to look at coworking through economic terms and focus on what coworking firms provide users.  In other words, we define coworking firms by how and in what ways they commodify workspace as a service. The table below defines the four key value propositions we identified through our analysis of the firms in our dataset: 1) Space-as-a-Service; 2) Community, 3) Professional Network, and 4) Work-Life Balance.  In our research, 100 percent of coworking firms provided 1) Space as a Service and 95 percent of coworking firms provided 2) Community. As a consequence we consider these two value propositions defining characteristics of the industry in its present form.

Value Proposition Description
Space-As-A-Service Access to affordable office space and office infrastructure (WiFi, furniture, HVAC, mailboxes, etc.)
Community Access to other workers who can provide important-yet-missing social interaction for freelancers, remote workers, contract workers, and small businesses
Professional Network Access to a network of both potential peers and clients, and access to opportunities to learn best practices and new skills, as well as find investment and new business opportunities
Work-Life Balance Access to a work style that allows for a better balance between the demands of a personal and professional identity


Mapping Coworking: Flexible Work in Cities

The first major finding from this research is that coworking is an urban phenomenon. Of the 662 spaces in our database, only one space is located outside of a US metro region. The vast majority of the remaining 661 spaces are located in major metro areas across the United States (see table and map).

We found coworking firms concentrated in large metro regions. This stands to reason because coworking firms, like temporary employment firms, will concentrate in places with large labor markets.  We tested the hypothesis that coworking firms were concentrated in places with a significant presence of “creative class” workers — the high-tech workers associated with narratives about workers who choose flexibility rather than permanent employment relationships.

We also looked at whether population growth corresponded with the rise of coworking spaces in a given region. The table below presents our initial findings.

Top 10 Metropolitan Statistical Areas with High Concentrations of Coworking Locations and Their Percent of “Creative Class” Occupations, 2016
Metropolitan Statistical Area Number of Coworking Locations Population, 2015 estimate (ranking)* Population Growth 2010-2015* Creative Class Location Quotient** Super Creative Core Location Quotient**
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 65 20,182,305 (1st)

 

2.96%

 

1.12 1.10
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 62 4,656,132 (11th)

 

7.15% 1.27 1.34
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 39 3,733,580 (15th)

 

8.26% 1.20 1.36
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 38 13,340,068 (2nd) 3.86% 1.06 1.08
Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH 32 4,774,321 (10th)

 

4.58% 1.21*** 1.10***
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 32 6,097,684 (6th)

 

7.61% 1.48 1.53
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 28 9,551,031 (3rd)

 

0.84% 1.05 0.98
Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO 23 2,814,330 (19th)

 

10.17% 1.16 1.16
Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, TN 18 1,830,345 (36th)

 

9.21% 0.99 0.82
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 17 5,710,795 (9th)

 

7.67% 1.08 1.03
MSA Averages# 2 329,894 1.62%†† 0.92 0.92‡‡
*Annual Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2015, Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, Release Date: March 2016
**Combination of reported counts for occupation categories originally specified by Florida (2012) and later modified (Florida 2016) [see footnote 6 & 7]
***Occupation data collected for the Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, MA-NH Metropolitan NECTA.
#MSA Averages are calculated based on data available for all MSAs (LSAD M1), except for occupational reporting. Creative class and super creative core location quotients includes a combination of MSAs and NECTAs (LSAD M5).
Average number of coworking spaces includes MSAs where no coworking spaces were recorded. Actual calculated average value mean is 1.67 (median: 0; mode: 0).
††Median MSA population change: 0.86%
Median creative class location quotient: 0.89
‡‡Median super creative core location quotient: 0.87

We concluded from this analysis that neither the presence of creative class occupation nor the pace of population growth in a given metro area fully explains the growth of coworking firms.  The map below provides some additional support for our conclusion: coworking concentrates in urban labor markets, but variation across urban labor markets has yet to be fully explained.

picture1Our second major finding is that the coworking industry is comprised of two types of firms: single-location firms and multi-sited franchises. This is consistent with the practices that emerged in the temporary employment services industry where large firms such as Adecco and Kelly set up global franchise operations while local temporary service firms emerged in individual cities working in competition and in collaboration with the larger, multi-sited firms in the industry.

Coworking Firms and Number of Individual Operating Locations (Total), 2016
  Number of Coworking Firms Number of Coworking Locations
Total Firms 468 662
Firms with one site 418 418
Firms with between 2 and 5 sites 39 119
Firms with more than 5 sites 11 125

 

Geographic Coverage of Large Coworking Firms, 2016
Firm Name Active Spaces Within US Geographic Coverage
WeWork 48 National
Impact Hub 15 National
The Cove 11 Mid-Atlantic & Northeast
Industrious 10 Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, South, & Mid-West
ActivSpace 10 Pacific Division
Make Offices 10 Mid-Atlantic & Mid-West

Coworking is still a new industry so we do not yet have evidence of how and in what ways the large firms will interact with the single site locations and whether they will compete on the basis of service offerings. We did find that most coworking spaces are private firms that allow membership-based access.  Our assessment of the variation in offerings by firm versus by site indicates that there is little variation in core services at present.  Further research is planned to ascertain whether variation in core services is, in fact, driven by variation in the labor market (geography) rather than competitive firm strategies.

Frequency of Common Coworking Offerings by Firm and Location, 2016
Coworking Offering By Firm (Percent) By Individual Site (Percent)
Office Infrastructure

(Space-As-A-Service)

78 (100%) 116 (100%)
24/7 Access 60 (77%) 88 (76%)
Furniture 76 (97%) 114 (98%)
Wireless Network Access 77 (99%) 115 (99%)
Mailbox and/or Mail Services 45 (58%) 69 (59%)
Printing 61 (78%) 99 (85%)
Conference/Meeting Rooms 74 (95%) 112 (97%)
Meeting Tools 61 (78%) 98 (84%)
Coffee and/or Tea 73 (94%) 111 (96%)
Kitchen(ette) Access 50 (64%) 86 (74%)
Community#
(Social Interaction)
73 (94%) 110 (95%)
Professional Development##
(Professional Network)
54 (69%) 90 (78%)
Work-Life Support#
(Work-Life Balance)
49 (63%) 79 (68%)
 #Social Interaction refers to language on websites that refers to the benefit of being near other workers, either in terms of camaraderie or collaboration.
##Professional Development includes informal learning (e.g. lunch-and-learns), professional panels, networking events (e.g. meet-ups), and members-only events
###Work-Life Support refers to various listed amenities such as relaxation areas, gym access, bike storage, dog-friendliness, and wellness programs (i.e. on-site yoga or massage).

 

 

 

 

 

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The Actually Existing Analog City

by Chris Thayer, Center for Urban Innovation

In 2014, my CUI colleague, Taylor Shelton wrote an article entitled the “Actually Existing ‘Smart City’,” which discussed examples of the idealized smart city, typically in the form of generating and installing new technologies and forms of data-gathering, which may be intended to support a particular civic purpose or might also apparently be for the sake of the technology itself. The article problematized the exclusively technical orientation of much of smart cities practice, but overlooked a deeper question that many researchers and policymakers in the emerging industry have ignored: what is, and more importantly, what should be the definition of this “smart city” that is thought to perhaps “actually exist” among current cities?

When such a question is proposed, of course answers will vary based on the background and experiences of the expert consulted. Mostly commonly, the smart city is held to be an urbanized district — not necessarily the entire city itself — with closely integrated technologies, such as sensor arrays and other data-collection tools and hi-tech efficiency boosts to existing systems. Those with a more public-minded bent may bring up civic hackathons and the ideal of greater connection between governments and the governed, though both the technological know-how (discussed here by CUI contributor Thomas Lodato) required to participate and the sometimes moribund nature of governments  in an era of neoliberal devolution makes the enthusiasm for such efforts perhaps misplaced. For those with an eye to the oft-neglected physicality of government provision, international smart cities development calls into sharp relief the risk of prioritizing “hot” (and often invisible) smart city interventions with expensive, time-consuming, unpopular infrastructure construction, even as other experts call for additional infrastructure emplacements in order to support further smart city developments. However, these approaches seldom consider the existing structure and nature of the cities upon which these new technologies are grafted.

This is hardly the first age in which an influx of new technologies, driven forward by commercial interests, drastically reshaped urban life as we know it. Certain changes are well-known and oft-discussed, such as industrialization’s reshaping and intensification of the density and bustle of city life, coupled with new high-quality steel, inspired everything from the dumbbell tenement to the beginnings of the city planning profession. Likewise, we are still feeling the ongoing effects of the changes begun a scant handful of decades later, when the personal automobile began exponentially accelerating the streetcar-driven stirrings of suburbanization, creating previously unimaginable, and perhaps fundamentally ungovernable, urban sprawls. Indeed, not only did cities create the original information technology of writing, as Townsend noted, but they were also undone by technology — and government mismanagement thereof — as early as 1788 B.C.E. In Ur (in Mesopotamia), a poorly-executed government crackdown on predatory lending practices (enabled by the financially sophisticated cuneiform-on-clay contracts of the time) resulted in major international trade haltage and an accompanying permanent loss in city wealth and status from which it was unable to ever recover. The pace and extent of technological integration has only increased since those earliest known foibles. Therefore, we must be cautious when considering our responses to — and integration of — the increasingly speedy, invisible, and powerful technological interventions associated with the current “actually existing” concept of the smart city, and our redefinition of the same, and the qualities of the city that currently exists in fact.

 

500px-quantization_error
Quantization noise: Information lost in digitalization. From Wikipedia

In this tension between the practical city as it stands today and the technological improvements the “smart city” concept advocates, we may see an echo of the divide between analog and digital signals. Indeed, much like cities, analog signals transmit information via continuous change. Cities aren’t finite, as digital signals are, and neither are they degradation-proof. What’s more, cities are capable of infinite variations, making the addition of “noise” all but guaranteed when attempting to digitize them, just like any other organic source of information. What remains to be seen is if the replicability of digital signals will carry over into the digital city — will we at last be able to see smooth, lossless policy transfers between these new technological marvels, or will their signals be blurred with metaphorical quantization noise, their efficiency reduced? The advocates of “smarter” cities must take care that their playground’s unique profile not be lost to homogenizing forces of universalized best-practices in the name of transnational interoperability divorced from practical necessity. Part of that mandate necessitates integrating all the functions of a currently existing city into the “smart” plan, not just the mechanical.

 

The recent PCAST report on smart cities echoes the industry-wide trend of smart city proponents privileging the technological over the social and exhibiting disinterest towards equity concerns and established urban studies fields in favor of “gadgets” and new datasets. Smart cities’ technocratic bent parallels the auto orientation of 1940s sprawl into suburbia, and is in particular similarly being pushed by the titans of industry best positioned to benefit, with little regard for the potential for scattered, incoherent “city-let” fragments left in the wake of the improved “urban development districts” (eerily similar to other “district” approaches that have floundered previously) they advocate. The reformers of the previous century — and it has been just about a century — also chased the City Efficient, though they had less sophisticated tools if no less enthusiastic a will. Without a careful consideration of what we do — and what we should — mean by the term “smart city,” however, we are liable to repeat their mistakes as we favor rapid progress over beneficial progress. It is wise to recall that, in some conceptions, government exists to “polish off” the rougher edges of the market, and that it is unlikely the watchman can watch itself in this instance — that is, to employ unmodified technological approaches taken directly from market solutions. Therefore, we must always keep in mind the need to broaden the definition of the smart city beyond the merely technical — indeed, perhaps directly into the kind of “education, healthcare, or social services“ delivery that PCAST handily dismisses.

Finally, in seeking a fuller definition we must consider how much of this smart city proposition — from the specific availability of data on up to the identification of the city as “smart” — is just so much more booster-istic smoke and mirrors? City machines have been lying to their constituents for centuries, generally with the very best kinds of lies — things that are technically true and also completely devoid of meaning. What’s more, one of the best ways to conceal something is to leave it out in the open, data dumped in the name of “openness” left in some forgotten corner languishing amongst so much more digital detritus, and it seems likely that many smart city transparency mandates — and smart city efforts in general — risk this eventual fate. This is where careful policy and outreach may step in for positive change, above and beyond the debatably effective civic hacking seen thus far. Despite Smart Cities author Anthony Townsend’s tidy definition of the smart city as a “[place] where information technology is combined with infrastructure, architecture, everyday objects, and even our bodies to address social, economic, and environmental problems,” in implementation it is not so simple. Even leading practitioners of smart city interventions such as sensor array testbeds and “sentient” homes have struggled to define this ambiguous term — and this difficulty need not be a negative. On the contrary, the moment of ambiguity that “smart city” is experiencing represents a unique opportunity to introduce intentionality to the definition and broaden it beyond its technocratic derivation. By remembering the lessons of our analog past — be it Mesopotamian or merely BetaMax in patina — we can shape a city that is not only “smart,” but truly wise in including the voices of and satisfying the core needs for all its citizens.

 

This article was originally written in response to a course assignment in a graduate course in urban policy analysis and practice offered in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy every Fall (PUBP 6604).

Smart Cities and National Innovation Policy: The #WHFrontiers Conference and the Future or Urban Innovation

by Jennifer Clark

debra-lam-frontiers2-via-next-pittsburgh
Debra Lam speaking at the Local Frontiers Track, courtesy Next Pittsburgh

On October 13, 2016, President Obama hosted the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, PA.  The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) hosted the event with Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the City of Pittsburgh.  The event convened tracks focused on innovations across five domains defined by scale: the personal, the local, the national, the global, and the interplanetary.

For an economic geographer, this was a rare opportunity to observe a national government think strategically across scales and consider how innovation policy simultaneously operates within and across those geographic scales.  The challenge of how to analyze and understand the processes of innovation — including technology diffusion — across scales is central to the work of economic geography.  

There is also the additional challenge of coordinating policy — the role of the state — in facilitating the diffusion of scientific and technological innovation across scales.  This is a key concern of communities of scholars such as those associated with the Regional Studies Association, which focuses on the local, regional, national, supra-national regional, and global processes of policy design and diffusion. CUI’s Director, Jennifer Clark, has written extensively about the coordination of national and local and regional innovation policies.

The emphasis of the “local” track of the White House Frontiers Conference was the evolving opportunities that technologies provide for cities in terms of health, transportation, public safety, and civic engagement — all pillars of “smart cities.”

A key focus was on data and the need not only to generate more data but to better understand existing data and to gather, manage, curate, and provide access to data across domains and across platforms for communities and other stakeholders. This is, in part, a consequence of OSTP’s recent efforts to stimulate research networks and research questions geared toward an emergent US smart cities strategy through two key activities:  

  1. First, OSTP launched the MetroLab Network of 20+ city-university partnerships in September 2015 (of which Atlanta and Georgia Tech are founding members).  The MetroLab Network was modeled after the city-university partnership formed by Carnegie Mellon University and Pittsburgh — Metro21 — focused particularly on partnering on the design, development, and deployment of transportation projects.
  2. Second, OSTP published the Technology and the Future of Cities Report in February of 2016.  At the Center for Urban Innovation, we have engaged the recommendations of the PCAST report both from an academic perspective and as fellow applied researchers active in the field.

The Frontiers Conference was in many ways an effort to highlight how investment and attention to science and technology policy has stimulated innovation over the past eight years and underscore that these investments are key to the sustained economic resilience of the national as well as urban and local economies.  Further, the Frontiers Conference highlighted the validity of an approach in which private, public, and academic researchers partner and collaborate on shared initiatives and clear goals.  

The Advanced Manufacturing Partnerships (AMP 1.0 and AMP 2.0) effort serves as an example of how private, public, and university partners can design policy interventions and then partner to implement them.  This “triple helix” approach to the national-scale design of policy and the regional-scale implementation of programs parallels the point made on this blog last week, asking if Is it Time for a North American Week of Cities and Regions to facilitate this work.

The series of PCAST reports on the role of technology in the economy and the meaning of technology for the country — particularly the breadth and coverage of these reports — is significant too.  The idea that technological change can drive not just the research agenda or an agency like the National Science Foundation but also influence the research and implementation priorities of agencies like the Departments of Transportation, Energy, and Commerce — in a broad and coordinated way — changes the landscape of federal research spending on technology design and diffusion.

The Frontiers Conference showcased the economic and societal value of advances in science and technology and distributed innovation.  In other words, one key success factor is facilitating the distribution of innovations across the economy rather than siloed in the research and development labs of large companies and government facilities.  Those places make essential contributions as well, but the broad-based opportunities provided by new technology are distributed — both the data that fuels the applications and the technology and shapes the software and the engineering that optimizes the hardware.  Whether it is for health, public safety, transportation, economic development, or quality of life, technology diffusion crosses scales and domains.  The Frontiers Conference underscored the value of embracing a role for government that facilitates an interdisciplinary approach to innovation.

President Obama hosted the day-long Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, at Carnegie Mellon University, bringing together researchers, business leaders, technologists, philanthropists, local innovators, and students to discuss building U.S. capacity in science and technology. Among the attendees at the invitation-only White House Frontiers Conference were IPaT Executive Director Beth Mynatt and Georgia Tech Center for Urban Innovation Director Jennifer Clark.  Click here for a live stream of the event, here for an IPaT article about the Frontiers Conference, or check out the Twitter hashtag,  #WHFrontiers.

 

Is it Time for a North America Week of Cities and Regions? Capturing the Potential of Urban Innovation Through Distributed Networks

by Jennifer Clark

logo_header

Since 2003, the European Union’s Committee of the Regions has convened local, regional, national, European, and global decision-makers and experts in Brussels each October for the European Week of Cities and Regions — more than 100 workshops, debates, exhibitions, and networking opportunities. Working with organizing partners like the European Commission’s DG for Regional Policy and the Regional Studies Association, the European Week of Cities and Regions attracts over 6000 participants.

The goal of these annual meetings is to share innovative policies and projects across the cities and regions of EU member states through direct exchange rather than the top-down replication of the models that filter up from cities and regions to national and EU experts and only then diffuse back down to cities and regions.  Instead, the Week of Cities and Regions allows local policy experts to share success stories, challenges, and models directly with each other while simultaneously learning from national and international experts.  In other words, the European Week of Cities and Regions has, more than a decade after its first iteration, become a predictable and regular opportunity for policy researchers and designers, as well as those tasked with policy implementation, to check in and check out what works, what doesn’t, and focus on tailoring broad national and regional goals for local implementation.

In 2015, the Center for Urban Innovation’s Director, Jennifer Clark, was invited to talk in Brussels at that year’s European Week of Regions and Cities. Dr. Clark spoke on ‘Working Regions’: Rethinking Regional Manufacturing Policy, during a panel themed around “Rethinking regional-level industrial policies for the ‘new manufacturing.'” The talk highlighted analysis and policies discussed in her 2013 book, Working Regions: Reconnecting Innovation and Production in the Knowledge Economy. Working Regions focuses on policy aimed at building sustainable and resilient regional economies in the wake of the global recession. Using examples of four ‘working regions’ — regions where research and design functions and manufacturing still coexist in the same cities — the book argues for a new approach to regional economic development. It does this by highlighting policies that foster innovation and manufacturing in small firms, focus research centers on pushing innovation down the supply chain, and support dynamic, design-driven firm networks.

For the 2016 European Week of Cities and Regions, Dr. Clark was also invited to speak on the a panel themed: Is EU manufacturing ready for Industry 4.0? on October 13th at the European Commission. The panel is organized by Professor Lisa DePropis from the Birmingham Business School at the University of Birmingham and includes Professors Patrizio Bianchi and Steffen Kinkel as well as Dr. Clark. The entire schedule for the European Week of Cities and Regions is available here.

The panel will focus on emerging themes and regional policy issues around manufacturing and Industry 4.0. In 2015, the European Commission (DG for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs) and the European Parliament started to raise awareness that a new manufacturing model was emerging: this is referred to as Industry 4.0, or smart manufacturing. Technological change, digitalization, and a new demand are driving a ‘production organisation revolution’ that is redefining the nature of the manufacturing sector and its contribution to the wider economy.

Industry 4.0 is argued to mean more servitized — that is, with increased value due to an added service component — and customized manufacturing goods, as well as the pervasive exploitation of key enabling technologies across all sectors. Industry 4.0 is believed to offer a unique opportunity to upgrade EU industrial capability, to reshore competencies and functions, and to repopulate advanced industry systems across regions to secure jobs and prosperity. Despite the hype on Industry 4.0, it is still unclear what the triggers and drivers are in the EU context, and also what its constraints and headwinds might be. Speakers will discuss what it means and what it will take to align EU regions and EU manufacturing sectors to Industry 4.0.

Now, it is true that the EU, as an organization, has been exceedingly active in urban and regional policy design and implementation. For example, the EU’s Cohesion Policies have long sought to promote sustainable growth across EU regions and mitigate inequalities.  Recent regional policies include the Smart Specialisation (SP3) and Industry 4.0/smart manufacturing.  The US has often left urban and regional policy innovation to the state and local level. What these panels about these particular topics illustrate are the ways in which national policy priorities are necessarily connected to local and regional implementation.  And what’s more, they show how that implementation can be more effective when coordinated at the policy design phase, not simply assessed after deployment.

The benefits to the US of engaging in a similar approach — exchanging innovative policy models for urban and regional growth and development — is worth considering, as is its potential advantages for its neighbors, Canada and Mexico. The benefits of that knowledge exchange are well understood in the broader policy community. We at the Center for Urban Innovation have observed and documented the proliferation of ad hoc policy diffusion networks over the past half-decade across the US (and internationally). Examples include the Bloomberg Foundation’s Innovation Delivery Teams, WeWorkCities, the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, the City Energy Project, and many more.

This ad hoc approach tends to privilege certain places and certain policy priorities.  In other words, the participants and the policies promoted are selective rather than representative. Perhaps it is time to create a formal, predictable structure for this exchange of project models and innovative approaches to urban and regional governance.  The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has moved in this direction with its support of smart cities initiatives, through the launch of city-university partnerships organized through the MetroLab Network.  This week, the White House also announced the Local Frontiers track at the White House Frontiers Conference, in which we will participate. This track is another example of a step in the direction paved by the Week of Cities and Regions. Such efforts signal an awareness and recognition of the value of convenings similar to those seen in the EU.  The model already exists for a Week of Cities and Regions, and it is a model with a decade long track record of successful knowledge exchange. Is it time for a North America Week of Cities and Regions? It seems we have reached the moment for capturing the promise and potential of urban innovation by acknowledging, valuing, and enabling the work of urban and regional policy professionals across the US by creating our own annual convening of the people who design and conduct policy in our cities and regions.

Introducing PARSE: Participatory Approaches to Researching Sensing Environments

by Carl DiSalvo

iot-graphic
From MIT’s Internet of Things Course Announcement

The Smart City has been an idea in circulation for well over a decade. Now, due to a confluence of factors, certain aspects of the Smart City are quickly manifesting from plan to reality. Distributed sensor networks are being deployed in testbeds within selected cities across the nation to monitor a range of environmental conditions, including in Atlanta. Through social media, average citizens are providing a torrent of data about where they are, what they are doing, and how they are feeling. Video cameras are ubiquitous. What’s more, all of this data is increasingly being networked together, bundled into so-called dashboards.  The idea behind these dashboards, testbeds, and in many cases the data collection efforts themselves is that everyday people, as well as government service providers, will be able to use data this to inform themselves, to make better-decisions, to enhance their (and their clients’) lives, and to improve civic conditions. But how can such goals be accomplished?

The prevailing interest, for both researchers and residents, is to work towards articulating a diverse and equitable vision for the Smart City. There have been, and continue to be, plenty of sharp critiques of the idea of smart cities and its implementation. While not being naive, however, many dedicated researchers still believe that participatory research and co-design can contribute to equitable local instantiations of the Smart City by collectively discovering, documenting, and sharing issues and potentials with the technologies being developed and implemented in the pursuit of “smartness.”

In this spirit is a new project known as PARSE (Participatory Approaches to Researching Sensing Environments), which combines design and social science methods to investigate the technologies and services of Smart Cities and more generally what is known as “Civic IoT”—the use of Internet of Things technologies for public life. The project draws upon practices of participatory design to gather together community, municipal government, and industry stakeholders to collaboratively explore the issues and possibilities of distributed sensing in urban settings.

PARSE is comprised of a series of workshops, beginning in October of 2016 and running well into 2017. The workshops will move between locations in order to draw in a more diverse set of stakeholders, with each workshop focusing on a different location and community in Atlanta. The workshops will run approximately two hours each, during which participants will learn about the sensors being deployed in Atlanta as part of the MAPPD project, and then engage in hands-on design activities to create scenarios, use-cases, and service prototypes for the data expected to be generated from these new sensors. Along the way, participants are expected to surface and discuss concerns, ranging from those of privacy to equity and beyond.

The PARSE project exemplifies a kind of community-based design research. It is intended to provide applied, actionable outcomes to inform the subsequent roll-out of Atlanta as a fully-fledged Smart City. The project also contributes to important research questions about the public element of the Smart City ideal. Much of the research into Smart Cities, especially in fields such as human-computer interaction and communication studies, has looked to specific devices and systems. PARSE, by contrast, is oriented towards issues of engagement, and the ways in which design might contribute to forms of material participation in the context of Smart Cities. In particular, researchers are interested in identifying and analyzing alternative modes of civics engagement in the context of neoliberal and technocentric governments, and in theorizing new understandings of data that take into account both community data economies and the affective aspects of data collection and representation.

Of course, PARSE will not be the first project to do this kind work, and its design research draws from experts in the social sciences undertaking similar projects. For instance, the Citizen Sense project demonstrates how a hybrid design and social science approach to environmental monitoring can illuminate a range of possibilities, from more diverse sensor platforms to a more nuanced understanding of the interplay of human and nonhuman agencies in sensing.  Similarly, the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) demonstrates a socially engaged approach to environmental monitoring and the possibilities of a civic science — a participatory approach to data collection for the purposes of influencing governmental decision-making.

By combining expertise in design and public policy, PARSE provides a unique contribution to the study of Smart Cities. In addition to comparative case studies and frameworks for analysis and assessment, PARSE aims to contribute design guidelines and use cases to inform both engineering and policy. Organizations such as the Helsinki Design Lab and Public Policy Lab have demonstrated the value of design and policy labs in generating strategies for cities. The PARSE team believes similar efforts are needed with regards to the issues and potentials of Smart Cities. Moreover, these efforts must be open and provide opportunities for meaningful, substantive engagement from diverse stakeholders in shaping what the Smart City is, or will be, if the Smart City is to be equitable, just, and sustainable. PARSE is intended as a step in that important direction.