November 20, 2020
Trust and Distance in the Smart City
American democracy is currently experiencing a crisis in trust as American’s trust in their government has decreased significantly over the past half-century. To restore trust in government, public officials and technologists have increasingly turned to technological solutions such as smart city platforms, civic technology apps, and automated decision-making systems. These solutions are often guided by neoliberal design logic that limits designing with trust to pursuing efficiency and transactionality in civic relationships. The technologies this logic produces will not solve the crisis and can even exacerbate it; for instance, when the higher priority is assuring that a community’s voice is heard, that a process is fair, or that the most vulnerable can safely express themselves. To address these concerns, I argue that technology design in the crisis needs a new logic—one that is centered around how technology can close manifestations of distance in civic relationships.
In this talk, I will discuss a design approach that uses the social psychological concept of distance—the subjective experience of how far or how close something or someone feels to oneself— to guide designing civic technologies with trust. I’ll overview some of my previous ethnographic work within Atlanta’s City Government that informed this design approach. I will focus specifically on a project with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, where I designed a system to help this office guide immigrant residents through successfully engaging the City’s Code Enforcement process. I’ll end by briefly introducing how I am applying this framing of trust as distance in my research agenda at NYU, where I am exploring the design of new modes of public engagement with automated decision-making systems.
Eric Corbett is currently a postdoctoral researcher at New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress. His background is in computer science and human-computer interaction. His work often takes a research-through-design approach, which involves designing new digital prototypes and “things” with people and studying the creation and use of these prototypes using participatory approaches. He has worked on projects across various subjects including: resisting and countering gentrification; supporting trust in civic relationships between local government officials and marginalized communities; and most recently, creating new opportunities for democratic participation in public sector algorithm use. Throughout his research, the overarching thread has been exploring the intersections between design, social justice, democracy, and technology.