Smart Cities, Dumb Maps

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Guest blog by Phil Cohen.

In an interview I conducted recently as part of ongoing fieldwork in East London, a Bengali shopkeeper told me: ‘I can surf the Internet, I can skype my family back home, I text my sister in New York almost everyday, and my children are on facebook all the time. But we are terrified to go out of our front door in case one of us gets attacked or insulted by this gang of yobs who are living in the estate and who are angry because better off people have started to move into what they call ‘their manor’. They call themselves hoodies, but it’s not because of the clothes they wear, they think they own the neighbourhood.’

In this same estate I met a young gay teenager, who had been subject to attack by this same crew and who was, in addition, subject to homophobic bullying at the Academy School he attended, and whose location nearby had contributed to rising house prices which in turn fuelled the process of gentrification going on in this hitherto largely working class area. This boy had turned his bedroom into an emotional refuge, the walls plastered with images of gay icons and he spent a lot of time home alone and surfing the internet, not only for porn but watching Viewtube which carried many personal testimonies and coming out stories by teenagers from across the world which he found very helpful. He also participated in the virtual gay cruising ground provided by Grindr which geo-located other young people living nearby who shared his sexual preferences but whom of course he could not accommodate and was too scared to actually meet in any public place in case word got back to his unsympathetic parents and ‘mates’.

These two stories illustrate the nexus of questions that Livingmaps is concerned to explore in a new series of lectures, seminars and workshops kicking off at the Young Foundation this Wednesday. How can we map and challenge the multi-scalar patterns of power and powerlessness at work in these lived intersections of class, gender, ethnicity, age and sexuality operating within the networked neighbourhood? How do virtual and face-to-face communities interact in creating psycho-geographies of hope and fear, trust and distrust, whether to inscribe unplanned lines of desire on the regulatory urban grid or to create uncanny edgelands for inhabitation or circumnavigation by those able to go with the information flow? What kind of purchase, if any, do urban policy agendas have on the quality of life for those, especially young people, who are perched precariously on its economic and social margins? Finally what contribution can participatory research methods, especially those associated with community asset mapping and citizen social science, make to building a more inclusive urban commons?

To address and debate these questions we have invited speakers from a range of disciplines who are currently engaged in deconstructing the smart city agenda and exploring alternative strategies. The Livingmaps network brings together activists, artists and academics interested in developing a critical and creative approach to social mapping. In addition to our lectures, seminars , workshops and other events, we are currently running a number of community action research projects in East London and are about to launch a new online journal. Further information from our website

Phil Cohen is a Research fellow at the Young Foundation and Research Director of the Livingmaps Network. He is the author of Knuckle Sandwich – growing up in the working class city (Penguin), Multiracist Britain (Macmillan), Rethinking the Youth Question (Palgrave Macmillan) London’s Turning: The Making of Thames Gateway (Ashgate) and On the Wrong Side of the Track: East London and The Post Olympics (Lawrence and Wishart).


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