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Eric Gordon

Tue, Jan 25    1:15pm

Deep Listening: Post-engagement in the Smart City

A lecture by Eric Gordon, Professor of Civic Media at Emerson College and Director of the Engagement Lab.

This lecture will be presented virtually, please register in advance for the Zoom webinar link.

In 2020, Minneapolis began a long public conversation about police reform. Town hall meetings were held, and digital planning tools were deployed to gain written feedback on proposed policies. Despite these efforts, reform failed at the polls, and existing practices of police-community relations largely stayed in place. In 2017, the United Nations Development Programme facilitated the adaptation of communities to a changing climate in the remote Manang Valley in Nepal. They organized some conversations and sprinkled a report with some quotes. Their recommendations remained mostly unchanged from before the conversations, and the community was left to adapt on their own.

These stories are increasingly common around the world. Even as democratic public institutions have accepted the need to “engage the public,” actual practices to meaningfully build trust, incorporate diverse viewpoints, and provide accountability languish within antiquated and hierarchical institutional logics. Institutions often have a plan, they invite feedback from those impacted by it, and then they execute the plan. The power relations remain largely unaddressed and unchanged, and engagement appears as a necessary afterthought to performatively comply with expectations and regulations.

Whereas it might have once seemed reasonable to conceive of the public as an undifferentiated mass, and as public institutions as objective vehicles for the delivery of goods and services, this is no longer possible. Key pressing issues for contemporary societies, like systemic racism and the climate crisis, need to be addressed in a way that aligns with the legitimacy expectations of increasingly networked publics and the socioeconomic conditions of data-centric capitalism. The explosion of digital communication channels, data surveillance through urban IoT, use of the blockchain for public sector accountability, are all forcing a reconsideration of the paradigm.

Publics are always multiple. Public institutions are always shaped by values. And novel technologies extend existing value structures. So, while nearly every democratic public institution in the world is paying lip service to “engagement,” and investing time and energy in increasing the “voice” of constituents, there needs to be a reconsideration of whether institutions enabling weak participation is equivalent to them meaningfully listening. Continuing to underinvest in an antiquated paradigm of public sector engagement is simply not viable. Scholarship in public engagement, media literacy, and civic technology has focused primarily on enhancing voice. And while voice matters, if institutions lack the mechanisms to listen to those voices, even as they throw high tech solutions at the problem, then action will not be possible.

The paradigm of engagement cannot be effectively responsive to community needs and expectations in the contemporary city. Just as smart urban infrastructure seeks to be nimble, data-driven, and accommodating to a range of uses in the built environment, governance structures need to do the same. In this talk, Eric Gordon introduces the concept of Deep Listening as an alternative paradigm to engagement. Deep listening implies flexibility, reciprocity, and accountability, and is being actively imagined through the use of novel tools and methods for governance.

Eric Gordon is a professor of civic media at Emerson College, director of the Engagement Lab and Assistant Dean of Civic Partnerships in the School of the Arts. He is also a research affiliate in Comparative Media Studies at MIT. His current research focuses on emergent, values-based governance structures in the smart city and the ethics of data access and sharing. Additionally, for the last ten years, Professor Gordon has explored how game systems and playful processes can augment traditional modes of civic participation. He has served as an expert advisor for local and national governments, as well as NGOs around the world, designing responsive processes that help organizations transform to meet their stated values. He has created over a dozen games for public sector use and advised organizations on how to build their own inclusive and meaningful processes. He is the author of two books about media and cities (The Urban Spectator (2010) and Net Locality (2011)) and is the editor of Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice (MIT Press, 2016) and Ludics: Play as Humanistic Inquiry (Palgrave, 2021). His most recent monograph, Meaningful Inefficiencies: Civic Design in an Age of Digital Expediency (Oxford University Press, 2020) examines practices in government, journalism and NGOs that reimagine civic innovation beyond efficiency.

Organized by the PhD students in the Urban Planning Program at Columbia GSAPP. Free and open to the public.

Virtual events hosted on Zoom Webinar do not require an account to attend, advanced registration is encouraged. GSAPP is committed to providing universal access to all of our virtual events. Please contact up@arch.columbia.edu to request disability accommodations. Advance notice is necessary to arrange for some accessibility needs.