I was kindly invited to take part in the webinar POWER TO CO-PRODUCE: Careful power distribution in collaborative city-making, hosted on September 14th 2020 by Burcu Ateş, Predrag Milić, Laura Sobral and Sabine Knierbein at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Urban Culture and Public Space (SKUOR), Technische Universität Wien. As part of a session on ‘co-production practices’, I shared 15′ of my research on Democratising Urban Infrastructures: The technical democracy of accessibility urbanism (see full text below).
The technical democracy of accessibility urbanism
I. Technical democracy and city-making
In this intervention I summarise my particular urban anthropological interest in accessibility urbanism as a peculiar form of a technical democratisation of city-making. ‘Technical democracy’ is a term used in STS to discuss different approaches participatory forms of technoscience, where an expansion of expertise to knowledges beyond hegemonic technical ones has been approached and experimented upon. It has many versions, but nearly all of them are concerned with the need to reverse the effects of technocracy and expertocracy. This has been done in a wide variety of ways: from searching to make science and technology amenable for public discussion and deliberation to expanding the who and the how of technoscientific practice (for an overview, see Callon, Lascoumes & Barthe, 2011).
This concern is particularly important in a context of planetary urbanisation with its concomitant development of urban infrastructures. A concern with technical democracy becomes crucial when these urban infrastructures are not only heavily managed by all kinds of experts, but are redefining in uncertain ways the scopes and practices of urban modes of togetherness. Following also in this an STS concern, rather than as large technical systems, infrastructures should be appreciated as sites for the controverted relational re-articulation of social and material worlds: that is, particular forms of bringing together and apart agents, material entities, knowledges… Or, to say it better, relational configurations that foreground some of these agents, material entities, knowledges neglecting or, even, excluding others (Farías & Blok, 2016).
Precisely because of this, urban infrastructures are also the sites where new forms of the demos are emerging: Indeed, multitude of concerned groups and affected publics mobilise and undertake research around these highly technical issues; sometimes they train themselves to become quasi-experts in order to challenge expert control, when not searching to manage those urban infrastructures themselves. Contemporary urban infrastructures are one of the most crucial sites where an experimentation and a reinvention of particular forms of technical democratisation are taking place: not just because of how urban infrastructural design might need to be democratized, but also because of how we might be engaging in and designing infrastructures of urban democratization (Harvey, Jensen & Morita, 2016).
In what follows I will show you a few instances from my work on the technical democracy of accessibility urbanism. Since 2012, I have been doing research on urban accessibility issues in Spain and Germany, with a comparative European gaze: in particular, I have been studying and engaging in a variety of emergent publics mobilised around accessible design and urbanism. As a pioneering field in the democratisation of urban infrastructures, urban accessibility teaches us that in order to democratize infrastructures, we might need to engage in the experimentation with and implementation of different infrastructures for urban democratisation. As I will show:
(a) To manage complex socio-technical issues like this one requires the creation of infrastructures for inclusive policy-making, engaging publics and concerned groups in different forms of participatory governance;
(b) The democratization of modes of designing and doing urban infrastructures also implies setting up infrastructures for epistemic collaboration with emergent publics;
(c) But as I will suggest, in closing, for any of this to make any sense, we also need to intervene expert education: experimenting with pedagogic infrastructures for the ‘sensitization of experts.’
II. Participatory Governance
Since the 1970s, and through different forms of contestation, disability rights advocates have been searching to create public concern on the discrimination they suffer, making their bodily experiences of exclusion palpable to articulate more inclusive urban infrastructures (Hamraie, 2017; Williamson, 2019).
Allow me to give you an example. In what was known at the time in Barcelona as the cripples’ revolt diverse small associations of people with disabilities united to hold public demonstrations demanding ‘a city without barriers.’ These protests paved the way for the creation of a newly democratic municipal institution governing these matters in a participatory fashion since the early 1980s (the Institut Municipal de Personas amb Discapacitat, or Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities, IMPD, in its last denomination): in whose ‘hybrid’ board politicians and technical staff are joind by elected representatives of people with disabilities (IMPD, 2019).
The IMPD was quintessential in re-designing Barcelona’s urban infrastructures in preparation for the 1992 Olympics: this hybrid institution engaged in a comparative search for urban accessibility and inclusive design policies around the world; it was also a fundamental site for the legal training of disabled representatives to address highly complex technicalities, as well as the experiential training of professionals. This combination of comparative policy analysis, together with experiential and technical forms of knowledge exchange was important to develop new urban standards, building and technical codes that became a model in the country; a lasting urban infrastructure developed thanks to the participatory engagement of disability rights advocates.
But what this case shows is that a public engagement in the field of urban accessibility cannot just be an issue of merely allowing people to take part in, or to give very vulnerable people the means to appropriate technical knowledge or to transform technologies through consumption and user-led innovation. In a context in which regulation tends to happen in the extrastatecraft form of market-based building standards, ISO or DIN (Easterling, 2014), public institutional infrastructures are crucial to bring together concerned publics and experts to regulate, and assemble together inclusive forms of policy-making. Not only to be able to deal with the legal technicalities that policy-making on these issues requires, but also to ensure their implementation and sustainability for neglected actors. This is far from being an easy task. And it has usually entailed shaking the grounds of the classic means by which experts produce knowledge about these bodies.
III. Documentation interfaces
In the last decades, emergent publics and concerned groups with accessibility urbanism have been crucially developing particular infrastructures to mobilise and articulate their experiential knowledges, many times mobilising spatial registers going beyond expert-based Euclidean notions (Hall & Imrie, 1999; Imrie, 1999). I have been addressing them as ‘documentation interfaces’ (Criado & Cereceda, 2016): that is, not only as situations to frame, elicit and discuss diverse bodily experiences and the environmental and material affordances to host them; but also as situations that produce a trace in different kinds of media, forms of record whereby their experiential knowledge is mobilized to have an impact in design situations, such as in: (1) video-camera records to show what it means to move using a wheelchair; (2) urban explorations with blind people to discuss in situ whether different pavement textures, light settings or colours can be distinguished; (3) not to mention the increasing use of digital platforms for the audio-visual documentation of inaccessibility experiences by all kinds of disability experts, such as collaborative mapping apps.
These documentation interfaces are also interesting empirical sites to understand how particular alliances between concerned groups and experts or technicians are attempted, sometimes way beyond state-run institutional frameworks. One of the most interesting domains for this techno-political experimentation are the many do-it-yourself initiatives, makerspaces and hacklabs emerging throughout the world, and seeking to ‘democratize’ the access to technical knowledge and the users’ engagement in prototyping. I have collaborated in such endeavours as part of my long ethnographic engagement between 2012 and 2016 with the Barcelona-based open design collective En torno a la silla: part of a wider DIY network in the country including engaged professionals and technicians as crucial allies for people with disabilities.
Being able to work together in those settings entails implementing and managing infrastructures of documentation, requiring particular events and digital platforms. These infrastructures, in turn, have allowed intensive learning experiences of collaborative doing and making creating the conditions whereby alternative urban accessibility arrangements can be critically explored and tried out. Yet, despite the crucial importance of DIY forms of engagement for the democratisation of design they are far from being a ‘solution for all’. As we’ve also learnt, these engagements are extremely exhausting and time-consuming for people who also need many social and technical supports to take part in them. Also, without some degree of institutionalisation they prove fragile. Hence, they do not necessarily serve the purpose of bringing into existence safe, economically sustainable, and lasting urban infrastructures for personal autonomy and independence. Nevertheless, they are very relevant as documentation interfaces: that is, as infrastructures of epistemic collaboration where not just a redistribution of technical skills is being attempted, but where an exchange of knowledges becomes possible.
IV. Expert Education
But engaging in infrastructures of more inclusive policy-making or epistemic collaboration are not the only forms in which to create conditions of technical democracy. In closing, I would like to highlight another strategy that we could learn from accessibility issues: perhaps a more important one that we tend to overlook, even though it might open up fertile avenues to play a crucial role as scholars in technical universities like this one. What if democratizing technical decision-making did not just require citizens or lay people to become experts or hackers, but that professional experts in the private and public sector would be aware of the limits of their own expertise? What if technical democracy had to do with building pedagogic infrastructures to train these experts to open themselves to other forms of sensing, knowing and valuing?
Indeed, most urban designers do not usually receive proper accessibility training. This hinders the use of existing accessibility codes and policies. Beyond that, understanding the singular experiences and conditions of diverse bodies neglected by design disciplines is something that needs to be learnt by doing. When confronting with these issues many designers have to ‘retrain’ themselves, challenging their own expertise. For this they need to develop other skills as another kind of practitioners: not only inventing or adapting multi-sensorial gadgets to make possible co-design situations, but also creating collaborative devices to learn from disability advocates what it means to be different kinds of bodies. To make this process easier would require intervening early on in formal training and curricula, as in the ground-breaking experiments of Raymond Lifchez incorporating accessible concerns in design studio teaching (Lifchez, 1986): where disability rights advocates rather than being treated as end users in projects addressed at them were engaged throughout the duration of the course as design consultants of any kind of projects students were working on.
This became a key concern when having to teach at the Department of Architecture at the TU Munich between 2015 and 2018, together with my colleague Ignacio Farías (Farías & Criado, 2018). We realized that the space of the classroom and the training of future design professionals were largely unattended but critical aspects of the project of ‘technical democracy.’ In fact, training professionals to commit to other forms of producing knowledge and making things might be crucial to make more democratic forms of science and technology possible. But this requires inverting the so-called ‘deficit model’ of participation that aims to enhance the public engagement in science and technology: that is, we need to address the potential knowledge deficits of experts.
In the nearly three years we worked there, we plunged in the development of a series of teaching experiments called Design in crisis. In them we felt the need for STS to move from the ‘expertization of laypersons’–a classic public engagement trend, such as in citizen science–to the creation of pedagogic infrastructures for the ‘re-sensitization of experts.’ One example of what this might mean could be the ManualCAD:
“a portable game for architectural design in which both blind or visually impaired architects, and architects who have the sense of sight can participate and create together.”Taken from https://designincrisis.wixsite.com/designincrisis2017
It was developed by students in the MA in Architecture in a studio project I taught in 2017. After a several weeks’ intensive training to raise awareness of the need to re-appreciate the multi-sensory features of the built environment they had to undertake a group assignment: to collectively prototype a new architectural toolkit for a blind architect. This led them to explore and do research about multi-sensory devices, methods, and skills. Rather than a solution for an almost impossible challenge, the device they came up with was an interesting object to ask good questions or, rather, to open up design as a problem: A tool, perhaps, to re-learn what it might mean to engage in non-visual forms of architecture?
After engaging in this and many other similar teaching experiments, I have come to believe that for technical democracy to take place in city-making, it has to be always reinvented in specific terms from within the technical practices of experts, sensitizing them through different pedagogical experiments and interventions to be another kind of professionals, more open to the wide diversity of actors they could be designing with.
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Farías, I., & Criado, T.S. (2018). Co-laborations, Entrapments, Intraventions: Pedagogical Approaches to Technical Democracy in Architectural Design. DISEÑA, 12, 228–255.
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Williamson, B. (2019). Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design. New York: New York University Press.