Speculative Civics: A Lunch Talk With Carl DiSalvo | MIT Center for Civic Media

Speculative Civics: A Lunch Talk With Carl DiSalvo

Carl DiSalvo (@cdisalvo) an Associate Professor in the Digital Media Program in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. At Georgia Tech he established The Public Design Workshop, a design research studio that explores socially-engaged design practices and civic media. 

This talk is co-sponsored by the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the Engagement Lab at Emerson College on October 30, 2014. Liveblog by Catherine D'Ignazio, Erhardt Graeff, and Adrienne Debigare.

Catherine D'Ignazio introduces Carl DiSalvo and his work as uniting art, design, design research, and civic media. This talk coincides with the Civic Art Initiative and the question of what speculative thinking and the imagination's role is in civic life.

Carl will present some of his recent work, give us a specific example and present us with questions at the end for discussion. Some aspects of the work are exciting and some aspects are challenging. His work revolves around one big question - "How do we do democracy in the 21st century?" Democracy is something that we do actively. What is the role of design in democracy and how can it enable or thwart how we practice democracy.

He thinks he will spend decades answering this question. How do we narrow this down to approach it? Are there multiple kinds of democracy? Are there different characteristics of democracy that require different kinds of design? His first book - Adversarial Design - you have a lot of examples in support of design as consensus but what about examples of design as contestation?

Adversarial Design book cover

He has been working on design as related to civics. There is the landscape of civic technology - he shows an image from the Knight Foundation report. These technologies end up as apps, systems, and ways for citizens to exchange information with their governments. Are these new forms of civics? Or just familiar mechanisms delivered in new channels?

His background in design comes less from technology and more from design practice informed by the arts. Speculative design - for example the recent book by Dunne and Raby - has respawned a practice of critical design.

Walking Cities

He shows an image from the group Archigram called "Walking Cities." Archigram produced paper architecture. It was conceptual and used the tools of the time like collage and drawing. In this case - the question is What happens when we combine cities with robots? It may look quaint but it was a real provocation at the time. This is one way in which speculation comes into the role of civics.

He shows Raphael’s The School of Athens (16th C.) to illustrate Plato's book The Republic. This is a meditation around the "right" kind of civics. Another example is the project "Park(ing) Day" by Rebar. You rent a parking meter and you install a park there. What's interesting about this is that it's a different way to think about civics and design. It's not permanent city planning. it's temporary. Gives us an opportunity to use the city differently for a small period of time. This plays out differently in different contexts. For example, people in Atlanta get angry.

Speculative Civics What are projects that engage in speculation about what civics might be? What's different about this? The question is:

When is democracy?

The Philly 311 project, for example, is about democracy now. I can report my pothole now. I can comment on city infrastructure in the moment. We design for democracy in the now. The other projects are not fully in the now. Even Parking Day which takes place in a moment is a gesture towards what the city could be in the future. Archigram is about the future.

Part of the work of democracy is imagining the conditions and experiences of participation. Imagining Futures -- this might be a core thing that designers do. This is a big question that motivates his work.

A Project About Foraging

He shifts to talking about foraging. You might forage for apples on public apple trees. You can forage for mushrooms. You might forage for berries. He shows an image of a woman out collecting berries. There are three ways to characterize foraging:

  1. Foraging for ourselves
  2. Foraging to sell
  3. Foraging for a civic purpose

Concrete Jungle in Georgia forage to give food to the needy. They discuss their foraging activities as service provisioning for local food banks. It's a way of increasing the food resiliency and security of a community. They collect food in bags and put it in a truck and send it back to the food banks. They mainly collect apples. Foraging in this way is participating in a service provision to those in need, but it falls out of our normal considerations of both foraging and civics.

Georgia Tech built them an app but the group came back to them afterwards and said, "We really want a drone." Carl was a little taken aback.

Drones for Foraging This spawned the Drones for Foraging project. One of the challenges Concrete Jungle has is that they have to know where to go and what is the right time to pick. The apples have to be ripe. Foraging has a hipster cast about it but it's really a boring logistics problem. They wanted to see if drones could be used to monitor apple trees in one quadrant of the city.

The idea of using drones for agriculture is not new. They are regularly used in industrial agriculture. Farmers higher companies that do drone services. Then another company does the data analysis. They are almost exclusively used for industrial scale agriculture. He shows a picture of a farmer with a yellow and orange drone.

For the past year, they have been flying drones in and around Atlanta on fruit scouting missions. Foragers will learn to pilot the drone and fly it through the areas where they might pick food.

Image Detection software

They have also been asking "What kinds of support systems would be needed to support this practice?" To begin, they wanted to be able to use the drone to detect apples on apple trees. Though the accuracy non-optimal, as a design research experiment it became fascinating to try to describe "appleness." They explored the possibilities and limitations of their drone platform, Parrot Drone, a cheap $400 drone by attempting to detect color differences. Then, they used some open imaging tools to count apples as part of an experiment to see what it would take to move this platform from industrial agriculture to small-scale agriculture.

What has been revealed?

There are shifting scales of practice and shifting scales of technology. Shifting from industrial agriculture to foraging, what's noticeable is that the visual orientation of the drone changes. Flying overhead and measuring large scale fields is very different than flying through city streets and looking at things at a different scale.

It also makes us think about where the work is being done. We are a school of communications and humanities - we are interested in how we talk about and theorize these things. This prompts them to think about the fields of capital and the fields of civics differently.


They are starting to describe foraging as post-capitalist practice (J.K. Gibson-Graham). Post-capitalist situation has parallel markets and labor, informal and community economies.

Can you also conceive of foraging as a kind of post-civics, with parallel systems of service provisioning and care? They are looking at the work of Henry Jenkins, Boler and Ratto, Department of Homeland Security's work on the Occupy Sandy movement considering it as an extra-state practice.

He describes the role of design as a means for adjusting scale. How do you adjust between scales? You can't just take a giant robot tractor and have it work on small-scale. How do you do that from every aspect -- interactions, user experiences, device ecologies, features, sensors & hardware?

Design can also be thought of as a "breaching experiment" to practices. So you are not "solving a problem" but rather you are experimenting with the problem. What the drone did is that it elicited things - people talked about habits and practices. It becomes a kind of magical object. You might have had those conversations without the drone but it served as an evocative object that elicited them. Desires, values and politics are potentially revealed through this process.

One of his closing questions is "Who is this work for?" He doesn't have a good answer for this. Many of the answers he might give are a problem. We might say the work is for (1) the users and it's about providing toolsets. The foragers now have a new tool and that would solve the design problem. But then it doesn't make sense as a research problem. You are just doing service providing for audience that normally doesn't get design & tech services.You could say (2) it's for designers. But in talking to folks at design firms they are not engaged in this practice. (3) It could be for industry. Intel is actually supporting all this work. They want to know how to redesign chips. What are future uses of platforms that they are not thinking about? How is a chip making company going to approach that? So they invest in research projects with foragers is they want to know if hobbyist drone people are around then how do those smaller-scale chipsets get designed. But then he reflects on whether the greatest impact is on the design of chips and then does that help with democracy?

You could say (4) it's for policy. Carl received an email from his associate dean of research told him he had to stop flying his drone NOW. The FAA will take the license to fly from the entire institute if you’re caught flying without a license. BUT the foragers can fly the drone. The FAA rule applies to those with a commercial practice and because Concrete Jungle gives their food away, they go through a loophole. This was fascinating to the Intel policy folks: what happens in a near future when average people want to put semi-autonomous sensor-laden tools in the world? Design research also becomes a probe here to policy potentially. Everyone should note that Carl does not fly drones anymore. (5) Another possible audience - social science or (6) Design Research as a Field - it's not clear it is a field or if we produce this knowledge who it's for.

The final way is where it connects back to art: (7) Contributing to a Social Imaginary: you are producing a vision of the future that is different than the present. This is something we normally expect of art rather than design. We can use our capacities as designers to model the future even though we don't know how exactly it will come about.

We should be answerable to something. If not, then it becomes too much like play.


Kate Krontiris: She appreciates the emphasis on imagination because it's so hard to imagine something other than status quo. She wants to understanding foraging as civic act. The Concrete Jungle people pull fruit from public and private trees. Are they involved with maintaining the trees for future crops? Is it mostly consumptive? What is their practice?

Carl: It's a great question. It's not something that they have ever talked about. They talk about caring for the trees. They maintain a private map with trees in people's yards. But maintaining the tree itself is not something they have talked about.

Kate: But what is civics? Is it because they don't sell it? That's what makes it civic.

Carl: It challenges our notion of civics. One of the things I think counts as civics is service provisioning for public life. They are contributing to that. To food security. By providing them with fresh fruits when they may not have them.

Jude: Curious about parking day. Have you observed how maybe these practices correlate to gentrification? How did they come to you and say they need a drone?

Carl: The relation of parking day to gentrification is a great question. I agree with you that thinking about these projects that claim to take over the city need to be considered. The folks from Concrete Jungle are cognizant of how they fit in the community. Their festival cider fest takes apples that people don't want to eat and they press them into cider and give it away. The audience is half their friends and half from the neighborhood.

How do they come and ask for a drone? They are a volunteer org and their core membership is 4-6 people who have different backgrounds - tech, biology, teaching. They are interested in taking risks. I think they knew about drones in agriculture and they knew we'd be open to it. Carl's first response was no, you don't need a drone. It was their idea. Now they've moved into instrumenting the apple tree directly.

Saul: Design as probe for policy. Cambridge decided last week it needed a drone policy. There was a viral video of a drone here being knocked out of the sky by a hawk. Framing this around imagination is interesting. Because the city is not interested in drones as imaginary space.

Carl: They have permission to fly on the grounds that are private property. The only time we ran into issues was on and around campus. The first time they flew it outside the building they are housed, security came in and said you can't do that—you'll hit someone in this public square. We have all these viral videos now: drones with bees, another where one fell on a triathlete. So maybe the public conversation has changed.

You could say that these regulations are ridiculous affecting a $400 drone. But you could easily imagine that drone falling on the public highway next to Georgia Tech and creating all sorts of problems.

I think drones are really exciting for citizen journalism, and that's where I worry about the limitations imposed on them.

Chelsea: Expressing concerns about fetishizing technology. How do you address that through the process and avoid that empty innovation adoption?

Carl: I agree with you about the technology thing. I must say I am in a digital media department and many colleagues think that digital component is primary. There are plenty of examples where paper-based versions of what we do may be more appropriate. When we work with communities, we try to let them lead with the choice of technology. There are times as experts that we have a responsibility to tell community members they aren't making the right choice. We can also tweak how we approach technologies when we use them. We can embrace the fetishization of certain technologies and push them in different directions.

Don Blair: I want to import all the questions you mentioned at the end to the DIY science / citizen monitoring space I am in. To make this more relevant to my work, I want to know how would things shift if rather than foraging on behalf of a food bank that they were foraging on behalf of themselves for caloric intake. Would you have thought about it differently? We are developing water qualities monitors. It's one thing to imagine what a citizen water monitoring project might look like and different if citizens are worried about some specific contaminant in their own drinking water.

Carl: People we talked to who do foraging for sustenance, don't need these technologies. They know where the food is and they don't need to monitor it. One of the characteristics of this project is that this is a "lower-stakes civics." It's not lower stakes for those who are hungry. But it's a different kind of relationship than the water quality monitoring.

In a short period of time, we have gone from imagining what an instrumented environment might look like to Kickstarter projects that produce these instruments for wide use. I remember CHI papers from 10 years ago that suggest we could instrument the environment and now we can.

Catherine: I think Don is pointing out that often times these citizen science experiments don't work. And there is still a disconnect from what is promised and what is possible.

Carl: Is this more or less real than drones for foraging? I think the context is more real.

Experimenting with drones does not affect their current practice. Georgia Tech research is doing this experiment, but it does not stop them from collecting apples across the city.

Catherine: How is the Walking Cities project different from the Drones for Foraging? The Walking Cities just need to show their images; their goal is to put a speculative idea into the social imaginary. But when you start doing this in the embodied world you run up against real policies and risk. When projects are operating in the real and bring in the social imaginary, does the fact that they are real diminish their speculative power, or is there something valuable about the embodied real-world aspect?

Carl: I have gotten that question before. The work of Archigram and Dunne and Raby are about the production of images and models that are non-functional. Is there a value of keeping some notion of speculation separate from some reality? Yes.

But there is something interesting about expanding what we see in our engagement with speculation. Architects in the 60s simply made drawings. Kickstarter could be a platform for speculative fiction—the way they put forward their short pitch videos to capture our imagination.

I like it when some aspect of my work hits the real world. "I just flew another drone into a tree." or Park(ing) Day is delimited by "how many quarters I have in my pocket." Drones for Foraging are not completely divorced from working in the real city, and they have technical limitations like only working for 20 minutes at time. And I enjoy thinking about those constraints.

Catherine: Speculative fiction may serve a research and development role for various organizations: companies, journalists, etc. Maybe the use of these drones serve as R&D for foragers.

Carl: That's a great idea. But journalists have an industry. Now what's the public forum where we share that information? We've created all this knowledge but we don't have the infrastructure by which to share the ideas. Maybe this is part of our responsibility as academics where we don't create the same thing over and over again?

Yu Wang: You haven't talked about what benefits this presents to the foragers.

Carl: There is nothing in place that impacts the foragers ability to do their work. For all of our projects we use a co-design process with the communities we are working with. This proceeds through a conversation about "what's next?" We have moved beyond the drones because they don't present a solution to them.

And the imagination being produced is not ours alone as researchers. The project would not exist without them.

We say maybe "empathy is a horrible idea" for civic work because it makes the person you are working with "the other." It's not that there are foragers and there are us, but now we are foragers too and identify by that label.

The two groups don't exist - we are one group together.