Interactions with unreliable infrastructure could be key to smart city design


UNIVERSITY PARK, PA – The move towards smart cities promises a better quality of life through large networked computer systems and integrated technologies that connect major public systems and infrastructure.

As the push towards smart cities seems to promote monolithic infrastructures managed in a centralized way, the search for a team of Penn State College of Information Science and Technology shows that universal solutions could meet resistance if they do not take into account the daily experiences of citizens or do not allow them to adapt their own solutions, especially in areas with historically unreliable infrastructures.

“We make a lot of assumptions about infrastructure, like water supply, especially in rich countries,” Jeffrey said. Bardzell, professor and associate dean of undergraduate and graduate studies at the College of IST. “We assume that there is only one infrastructure, like an electricity grid; that it is reliable; and that we want to make it smart.

But even in places like the United States where these assumptions are often true, infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to weather events that often have more impact than they were designed to do. And when they break down, how will citizens react?

To study this challenge, the researchers interviewed residents and analyzed local media coverage of people’s interactions with the unreliable water supply system in a single non-Western community – Pune, India.

Due to the rapid population growth and the inability of the infrastructure to keep up, not only in terms of physical materials but also management, Pune cannot reliably deliver water to all residents. Despite this unreliability, city officials are pushing for Pune to become the next smart city. However, Pune is much more likely to have built-in sensors and IT management, which makes it smart, before it reliably delivers water to everyone in the city.

As a result, residents have created their own patchwork system of municipal water, unregulated tanker service, and borehole drilling to get the water they need.

“It can be as simple as adding a bucket to store water, but it’s part of the infrastructure,” said Shaowen Bardzell, professor at the College of IST. “This ingenuity is important because rather than waiting for the municipal system to solve problems like we might in the United States, the residents of Pune will come together with ad hoc and light solutions.”

Ultimately, these layers of innovative, resource-sensitive workarounds – or jugaads – built from residents’ efforts to maintain access to water reflect a co-evolution of citizens and infrastructure that more faithfully reflects the history, culture and day-to-day practices of the community.

The researchers also suggest that residents of Pune are probably better equipped than those in wealthier areas to deal with this unreliability, as they are used to dealing with its effects and have a responsibility to ensure that the infrastructure remains functional.

This can lead citizens to resist municipal intervention which can deprive the individual of their power to act in the system by further legitimizing the system – for example, by automating reports on individual water use.

Researchers are seeing how critical this convergence between being a citizen and being a user is in the design of smart cities. As cities become smart and people become not only residents but also users, some can be left behind.

“When we design technology, we make assumptions around an ideal user about what they know and what they are trying to do. But who is the ideal smart city user? asked Tejaswini Joshi, a PhD student at Penn State College of IST. “Our research shows that utilities are much moree puff and that citizenship is often more sophisticated, which must be taken into account when designing smart cities.

Added Shaowen, “Technologists tend to think of systems design as creating something perfect that will stand the test of time. But we have to design in a way that is open and allows jugaad, so that people take ownership of the system so that they can do what they need with the system to actually allow them to live.

For researchers, this shift in Western thinking is key to expanding what smart cities mean and how we see them. Ultimately, these solutions must be made visible to promote citizen participation in the co-creation of infrastructures and lead to a redefinition of citizenship.

Concluded Shaowen, “If you only think of something like creativity or infrastructure in Western cases – especially when talking about smart cities – then you will only conceptualize Western solutions. ”

The work will be published in the October 2021 Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Collaborative Computer-Aided Work and Social Computing, and is supported by the National Science Foundation.


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