söndag 10 oktober 2010

ICT use in the post-modern city

Most of us take for granted that the future will be like the present, only "upgraded"; with better, faster, more technically advanced etc. Most assume that iPhone or Android smartphones, together with their games and apps, will continue to become more widespread, more advanced and more useful together with the rollout of next-generation infrastructure and mobile phone services; that 3G networks (2001) will be followed by 4G networks (2011-2013), then by 5G networks (≈ 2020) and later by 6G and 7G networks. All in all, Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) is progressing towards a golden age in the coming decades.

But a growing number of scientists and activists however point at the triple crisis (economy, ecology, energy), and imagine a radically different future based on stagnant growth or even de-growth/decline (because of a negative spiral between factors such as climate change, overpopulation, water scarcity, food production, peak oil, recession without end, social instability etc.).

If we posit a scenario where economic growth is slow to return (or absent, or negative), and unemployment will continue to be high, the future use of computing will for a gradually larger segment of the population consist of inexpensive portable computing equipment (laptop/notebook computers, smart or not-so-smart cell phones) and wireless internet access. So what if that future of ubiquitous computing and ubiquitous information services can be found in a city that has already experienced major challenges and slow decline for decades? What if the future is already here and its name is... Detroit? Detroit - the center of the American auto industry - stood at its zenith in 1950 and was at the time the 4th largest city in the U.S. Detroit has fallen on hard times since then and has lost fully half (!) of its population in the 60 years since then. Furthermore:

- The U.S. government had to bail out two the three Detroit-based American carmakers in 2009 (General Motors and Chrysler).
- One in five houses (40 000!) are empty or abandoned, and property prices have fallen 80% during the last three years.
- In the end of 2009, the official unemployment number was 27%, but Detroit's mayor admitted that the real unemployment rate was closer to 50%.
- One third of the adults, and half the children in Detroit live below the poverty line.
- Poor people in the city (some who don't have cars) even have problems buying food, as major supermarkets chains have closed many of their stores in the city.
- Almost half of all adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate.
- Detroit has a legacy of drugs, crime and violence.

At the same time, people have banded together and started to grow their own food in the city, on abandoned plots. Detroit's 875 "food gardens" and the grassroots movement around them have made the city into the capital of "post-modern" urban agriculture.

If, as some fear, we are entering a long period without significant economic growth, or with de-growth/recession (by some called "The long descent" or "The long emergency"), could Detroit in fact be a precursor of a fate that awaits more cities, and a pioneer in how to rebuild a city? Taking into account all the challenges Detroit faces above, the question for this proposed thesis becomes:

What can be learned from Detroit that might give us hints about computing conditions and practices in the "city of the future"?"

More specifically, what are the computing needs and the computing uses among people who live in Detroit's low-income areas?

Some sub-questions that follow from these two questions are for example:
- What kind of technical infrastructure exists in Detroit?
- How do people use ICT (and for what)? How do they learn to use it? How do they afford it?
- What services are available, and what services are popular in a city like Detroit?
- Do people use social media? For what? To reach out to others, to learn and to improve their situation? Or "only" for entertainment purposes?
- How important is ICT to people in Detroit?

Computers and smartphones are not expensive compared to houses or cars. It might be the case that some people who live in low-income areas will have a relatively high disposable income, but that their needs will look very different compared to the needs of the "ordinary consumers". What innovative products and services can fill the (unmet) needs of an urban underemployed underclass - a group that might perhaps even grow in size in the future:

"Laptops with wireless Internet access has made it possible for a homeless person to run an Internet business or a software company, manage an investment portfolio, or contribute to an international scientific collaboration. Any of these things can now be done from an Internet cafe or a public library, or, in fine weather, even a bench in a city park or a tent at a campground. Cell phones make it possible to give radio interviews and participate in teleconferences from just about anywhere" (Orlov, 2010).

Method: This kind of study has to be planned extensively beforehand (including mailing and setting up meetings), and then executed "on the ground", in a particular city. That city does not have to be Detroit, but it should be a city that has faced (some) of the same challenges that Detroit has (although perhaps to a lesser degree). A possible choice could for example be a city in decline in another part of the U.S, in England, Ireland, former East Germany or elsewhere (with high unemployment). Some suggestions are for example:
  • Charleroi in the French-speaking part of Belgium. As a steel- and mining town, the city is now characterized by unemployment, poverty and dependency on social welfare systems ("bidragsberoende"). The city has been called "the ugliest city in the world" and urban safaris are organized to watch the decay. Also infamous home of the kidnapper, paedophile and serial killer Marc Dutroux. Especially suitable for the French-speaking student.
  • The recently built ghost town Seseña, or some other city or city district/neigborhood in Spain. Seseña was portrayed in DN on Oct 23 (in Swedish) and i specially suitable for the Spanish-speaking student.
  • Kemijärvi in Finland with extreme unemployment after paper and woods industries have shut down.
  • Listen to part of NPR Planet Money's podcast (#309 September 27, 2011) on "A shrinking city knocks down neighborhoods" on how a city in decline tries to solve its problems.

Money for travel, accommodation etc. is unfortunately not included in this thesis topic suggestion, but can hopefully be applied for from a scholarship of some kind (I can help some with the application).


A must-read:
- Orlov, D. (2010). "Products and services for the permanently unemployed consumer". Cluborlov (blog).

On poverty in Detroit/the U.S, see:
- Temple, J. (2010). "Detroit: The last days". The Guardian, March 10.
- The article on Detroit's unemployment numbers, "Nearly 50% of Detroit's workers are unemployed" is not online any longer but can still be found (syndicated) inside this (long) blog post.
- Reuters (2010). "Food stamp tally nears 40 million, sets record". Reuters, May 7.
- Deparle, J. and Gebeloff, R. (2010). "Living on nothing but food stamps". The New York Times, January 2.

On urban gardening in Detroit, see:
- Runk, D. (2010). "Detroit leads the way in urban farming". The Christian Science Monitor, April 28.

More general on the 2008-2009 economic crisis and its effects in the U.S.:
- Cortright, J. (2008). "Driven to the brink: How the gas price spike popped the housing bubble and devalued the suburbs" (.pdf). CEOs for cities.

This thesis topic has also been published at the national website Exjobbspoolen [The Thesis pool].

Contact person:
- Daniel Pargman, pargman(a)kth.se

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