Participatory action research for civic engagement
Foth, Marcus & Brynskov, Martin (2016) Participatory action research for civic engagement. In Gordon, Eric & Mihailidis, Paul (Eds.) Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 563-580.
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The future of civic engagement is characterised by both technological innovation as well as new technological user practices that are fuelled by trends towards mobile, personal devices; broadband connectivity; open data; urban interfaces; and, cloud computing. These technology trends are progressing at a rapid pace, and have led global technology vendors to package and sell the ‘Smart City’ as a centralized service delivery platform predicted to optimize and enhance cities’ key performance indicators – and generate a profitable market. The top-down deployment of these large and proprietary technology platforms have helped sectors such as energy, transport, and healthcare to increase efficiencies. However, an increasing number of scholars and commentators warn of another ‘IT bubble’ emerging. Along with some city leaders, they argue that the top-down approach does not fit the governance dynamics and values of a liberal democracy when applied across sectors. A thorough understanding is required, of the socio-cultural nuances of how people work, live, play across different environments, and how they employ social media and mobile devices to interact with, engage in, and constitute public realms.
Although the term ‘slacktivism’ is sometimes used to denote a watered down version of civic engagement and activism that is reduced to clicking a ‘Like’ button and signing online petitions, we believe that we are far from witnessing another Biedermeier period that saw people focus on the domestic and the non-political. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary, such as post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, the Occupy movements in New York, Hong Kong and elsewhere, the Arab Spring, Stuttgart 21, Fukushima, the Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul, and the Vinegar Movement in Brazil in 2013. These examples of civic action shape the dynamics of governments, and in turn, call for new processes to be incorporated into governance structures. Participatory research into these new processes across the triad of people, place and technology is a significant and timely investment to foster productive, sustainable, and livable human habitats. With this chapter, we want to reframe the current debates in academia and priorities in industry and government to allow citizens and civic actors to take their rightful centerpiece place in civic movements. This calls for new participatory approaches for co-inquiry and co-design. It is an evolving process with an explicit agenda to facilitate change, and we propose participatory action research (PAR) as an indispensable component in the journey to develop new governance infrastructures and practices for civic engagement.
This chapter proposes participatory action research as a useful and fitting research paradigm to guide methodological considerations surrounding the study, design, development, and evaluation of civic technologies. We do not limit our definition of civic technologies to tools specifically designed to simply enhance government and governance, such as renewing your car registration online or casting your vote electronically on election day. Rather, we are interested in civic media and technologies that foster citizen engagement in the widest sense, and particularly the participatory design of such civic technologies that strive to involve citizens in political debate and action as well as question conventional approaches to political issues (DiSalvo, 2012; Dourish, 2010; Foth et al., 2013).
Following an outline of some underlying principles and assumptions behind participatory action research, especially as it applies to cities, we will critically review case studies to illustrate the application of this approach with a view to engender robust, inclusive, and dynamic societies built on the principles of engaged liberal democracy.
The rationale for this approach is an alternative to smart cities in a ‘perpetual tomorrow,’ (cf. e.g. Dourish & Bell, 2011), based on many weak and strong signals of civic actions revolving around technology seen today. It seeks to emphasize and direct attention to active citizenry over passive consumerism, human actors over human factors, culture over infrastructure, and prosperity over efficiency.
First, we will have a look at some fundamental issues arising from applying simplistic smart city visions to the kind of a problem a city is (cf. Jacobs, 1961). We focus on the touch points between “the city” and its civic body, the citizens. In order to provide for meaningful civic engagement, the city must provide appropriate interfaces.
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