Accepted paper:

Enacting social difference through smart city tech: the gathering of groupings through a platform


Oliver Zanetti (University of Oxford)
Parvati Raghuram (The Open University)

Paper short abstract:

Smart tech is rarely neutral. This paper examines how a new smart technology enacts social difference by gathering city dwellers into groups through queries run on its platform. This differentiation makes a difference, as residents become more or less able to participate in low cost energy markets.

Paper long abstract:

Typically, the promoters of smart city technologies in government and industry position smart as somehow neutral, conferring benefits on city dwellers and tech users without differentiation. However, critical commentaries examining smart argue that the urban technology risks exacerbating inequalities along existing lines of social difference (Madden, 2018) or itself creating new forms of social difference (Rose, 2017). This paper addresses the practices by which that difference is created. It does so by drawing on a comprehensive set of interviews with informants involved in the development of a smart city energy platform which aims to enrol city dwellers in renewable energy installation and energy efficiency measures. The paper explores how that platform works to enact social difference by differentiating between people and assembling them into cohorts based on factors as diverse as the physical characteristics of their homes, their participation in or potential to engage with local community groups, and their representation through locality data. The groupings enacted may be tentative or experimental, able to be assembled and disassembled continuously and with ease simply by running queries on the platform, but those found to be useful - they draw together a market for renewable energy installers, for instance, or they demonstrate a target group for local council energy efficiency interventions - will hold. Through this enactment, the platform becomes an agent in the creation of social differences with the potential for material consequences for city dwellers, enabling a differentiation in the energy market in which some are privileged and others disadvantaged.

panel C13
Assembling the smart city: exploring the contours of social difference