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Urban Digital Ethnography in Milan & Beyond

Shireen Walton27 November 2020

Photo of a Milan street, by Shireen Walton

As part of the ASSA project, I carried out ethnographic research an inner-city neighbourhood in Milan, where I lived for 16 months. During this time, I became involved in a range of local activities where I came to meet and know people over time, experiencing different aspects of daily life, offline and online. This included joining a Multicultural Centre that carries out social activities and provides social support in the area, a multigenerational women’s choir, and attending social events such as collective meals where people bring food and drinks to share together. During this time I lived in a casa di ringhiera apartment building, a type of popular housing built around the turn of the 20th century, and this formed a socially rich and immersive way of experiencing daily life, and sharing time with neighbours. The friendships I developed over time came to inform my ethnographic research on ageing, and my unfolding understanding of care and community in this context, which is the subject of my forthcoming monograph with the ASSA book series with UCL Press, Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy: Care and Community in Milan and Beyond.

The urban and digital ethnographic research methodology developed during my research builds upon scholarship that highlights the interrelatedness of urban life and digital media and communications (e.g. Georgiou 2013, Lane 2019). ‘Following the thing’ (Marcus 1995) with the smartphone and its related social and digital networks and infrastructures, I came to learn more about multiscalar networks in and across the city (Caglar and Glick Schiller 2018), the country, and transnationally, while looking at social media, maps, bespoke apps, and photo-sharing. I also keenly observed the smartphone as a material object, curious as to why some people adorned the object with physical stickers or photographs of grandchildren, or personalised their screensavers in certain ways, engaged with the smartphone, photos or apps with particular attitudes or in light of various moral or socio-ethical frameworks. Looking further at and inside the smartphone with research participants provided an opportunity for elicitation in interviews and discussion with research participants concerning practices, attitudes and evaluations, as part of a broader discussion of everyday lives, relationships, and experiences.

Fieldwork photo by Shireen Walton

In short, the smartphone was both an object of study and contained within it multiple site(s) of study. Spending time on my own smartphone ultimately formed a significant part of how I engaged with urban digital ethnography in practice[i] – both sited in place and virtually augmented, all the while keeping present over months of research (and continuing to be connected during the present times of the Covid-19 pandemic), with research participants and friends in Milan and various ‘affective economies[ii]’ within variously distributed physical and virtual spaces and places.

References

Ahmed, Sara. 2004. ‘Affective Economies’. Social Text 22 (2): 117–39.

Caglar, Ayse, and Glick-Schiller, Nina (2018). Migrants and City-Making: Dispossession, Displacement, and Urban Regeneration. Durham: Duke University Press.

Georgiou, Myria (2013). Media and the City: Cosmopolitanism and Difference. Cambridge: Polity.

Lane, Jeffrey (2019). The Digital Street. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Levitt , P and Glick Schiller, N. (2004). ‘Conceptualizing Simultaneity: A Transnational Social Field Perspective on Society’. The International Migration Review 38:3. pp. 1002-1039.

Marcus, George, E. (1995). ‘Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography’ in Annual Review of Anthropology 24, pp. 95-117

[i] For further discussion of this kind of approach, see also Jeffrey Lane’s (2019) urban digital ethnography with young people and about social media in a Harlem neighbourhood in The Digital Street.

[ii] Affective economies is a term used by Sara Ahmed to describe how emotions do things, such as align individuals with communities—or bodily space with social space—through the very intensity of their attachments. See Ahmed, Sara. 2004. ‘Affective Economies’. Social Text 22 (2): 117–39.

Milano Smart City: from above, below, and beyond

Shireen Walton20 December 2019

The last decade has witnessed the rise of the Smart City. Smart Cities, as they are broadly conceived, encapsulate the increasing embedding of technology into the urban infrastructures of cities across the globe[i]. The smart city concept can best be understood as a constellation of features and potentials made up of big data, algorithmic governance and automated urban management[ii], as well as citizens’ active engagements with technologies beyond mere ‘networked urbanism[iii]’. Certain strands of scholarship on smart cities has claimed that the smart city represents a ‘techno-utopian fantasy’, bringing together neoliberal urban visions directed at economic growth and prosperity and efficient and equitable urban governance. Strands of this scholarship have highlighted the acute contradictions of smart urbanism, including its very different expressions across global North and South and digital divides[iv]. Scholars working in human, urban and social geography have been particularly influential in understanding smart cities by exploring how people actually respond to new tech, amidst the wider context of big data and the digital/wider infrastructures that underpin the way cities are run and managed, as well as the kinds of social and spatial patterns that these systems produce[v].

The city of Milan has been widely recognised as a leading innovator of urban smartness. Roberta Cocco, Councillor for Digital Transformation and Civic Services of the Municipality, suggests that Milan’s leading position in Italy on the technology front comprised of four pillars:

1) digital infrastructure (preparing the ground for transformation, including Wi-Fi, 5G and broadband),

2) digital services for citizens (to assist in public administration and bureaucracy),

3) digital education (to support citizens’ digital literacy in order to access digital services),

4) digital skills (promoting within the municipality and cross-sector partners to boost employment and careers)[vi].

Cocco views Milan as a ‘model of experimentation’ in technological urban innovation, echoing a consensus within the municipality that other Italian cities will follow suit.

Figure 1: Milan metro. Fieldwork photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

For example, through the first Milan Digital Week in 2018[vii], the city has been publicising itself as a leading smart city, hosting numerous international events, (Figure 2), and symposiums [viii].

Figure 2: Three core focus areas at the 2019 Milano Smart City Conference, 13-15 November: https://www.smartbuildingitalia.it/en/smart-city-conference/

Milan’s status as a leading smart city was evident in its winning the inaugural Wellbeing Cities Award[ix], having implemented 16 new projects that claim to promote wellbeing for the city and its communities. These range from art and education initiatives to the regeneration of particular areas of the city.

Ethnographic research conducted on the ground and online provides an opportunity to challenge this top down agenda. For example, Katrien Pype’s ethnographic research in Kinshasa, the largest and capital city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, counters this with a perspective from the ground up, examining how residents engage with technology, combining their own expertise and creativity to produce variegated ways of “being smart in the city”. Pype asks:

‘Who is smart? And who is not? How does mastery over entering technologies relate to local repertoires of authority, power, and prestige?”[x]

In my Milan research I have tried to explore processes of ‘smartness’ from above and below, and their inter-relatedness, with a specific focus on the response of middle and older age adults.

Figure 3: Fieldwork photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Routine practices in the culturally diverse neighbourhood I carried out research in included googling for health, navigating the city via geolocative maps and free WiFi zones in public space and institutions such as libraries, arranging community events, or engaging in daily WhatsApp communications.

My research shows how the use of smart city services is contingent upon socio-economic circumstances, accessibility of roaming data, WiFi, and connection speeds, and how people respond to technology in their lives. At the same time, the concept itself continues to be being challenged, as seen in the following student protest slogans in Milan during labour day protests in 2019:

Figure 4: Student protest slogan on Labour Day, May 1 2019, Milan: ‘We strike the Smart City and Bikes’. Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

 

Understanding the smart city speaks to the heart of our project and its commitment to examining the meaning of the term ‘smart’ by explaining and understanding more broadly what ‘smartness’ is, and is becoming – and for whom – in the city and beyond.

 

Figure 5: Fieldwork photo (CC BY) Shireeen Walton

 

[i] Datta, A. ‘The Digital Turn in Postcolonial Urbanism: Smart Citizenship in the Making of India’s 100 Smart Cities’. In Transactions of the IBG. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12225
[ii] Leszczynski, A. (2016).  Speculative futures: Cities, data, and governance beyond smart urbanism. Environment and Planning A, 48, 1691–1708. Levien (2013). Regimes of Dispossession.
[iii] Graham, S., & Marvin, S. (2001). Splintering urbanism: Networked infrastructure, technological mobilities and the urban condition. London, UK: Routledge.
[iv] Luque-Ayala and Marvin (2015). Developing a Critical Understanding of Smart Urbanism’ in Urban Studies 52(12): 2106-2116.
[v] The work of Ayona Datta on Smart Cities https://ayonadatta.com and digital urban transformations in India https://ayonadatta.com , and Gillian Rose on smart cities and the (visual-digital) production of knowledge continues to be particularly insightful: https://www.urbantransformations.ox.ac.uk/project/smart-cities-in-the-making-learning-from-milton-keynes/
[vi] https://www.morningfuture.com/en/article/2019/04/17/smart-city-milano-roberta-cocco/596/ (Accessed: 19/11/19).
[vii] Milan has long been known for its world famous annual fashion week and design weeks, but since 2018 it has introduced ‘Milan Digital Week’, reflecting the city’s increasingly digital-orientated focus and shifts in the image of the city as predominantly fashion capital to the recent emergence as a digital capital, certainly of Italy, but also more broadly within Europe. https://www.milanodigitalweek.com
[viii] The founding of the ‘Milan Smart City Conference’ in November 2019 is a notable example of this contemporary push towards developing Milan’s leading reputation as a global smart city in the contemporary technological moment of the launch of the first applications for 5G. Three core concerns of the 2019 Milan Smart City Conference are stated as: ‘Infrastructure’, ‘Security’ and ‘Smart Mobility’. See the conference website here: https://www.smartbuildingitalia.it/en/smart-city-conference/
[ix] https://www.smartcitiesworld.net/news/news/milan-crowned-top-city-for-wellbeing-4212
[x] Pype, K. (2017). ‘Smartness from Below: Variations on Technology and Creativity in Contemporary Kinshasa’ in Mavhunga, C, C. What Do Science, Technology And Innovation Mean from Africa?; pp. 97 – 115