Against blank slate futuring: noticing obduracy in the city through experiential methods of public engagement

Cynthia Selin, Jathan Sadowski

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (Book)Researchpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Most people interact with cities on a daily basis – the arteries that move traffic, the grid that energizes communication, the buildings that prevent and direct action – yet, this familiarity, and the careful tucking away of infrastructure (Star 1999), renders the technologies that underpin the city invisible. Such obdurate structures are pushed to the background but nevertheless are resistant to change and ‘only seem to attract attention when they fail’ (Hommels 2005, 325). It is easy to take for granted something that seems to have always been there, but the consequence of this is that we place the intricate socio-technical systems that constitute cities into a black box (Guy et al. 1997). Cities are complex, dynamic patterns, yet also immobile and stable, opposing change in numerous ways. This black-boxing curtails opportunities to reflexively ‘see’ and redesign urban socio-technical infrastructures. At a time when it is imperative that cities are rejuvenated (or freshly built), with attention to sustainability, obdurate systems should come into the equation, and be brought from the background to the foreground. As such, we argue that obduracy is an important, but overlooked, conceptual lens that broadens and deepens the possibilities for grounded critique of emerging technologies and thus should be incorporated into efforts designed to publically reimagine technological systems. As we shall explore in this chapter, directing the gaze toward obduracy in public engagement practices offers leverage for citizens to consider what changes are not only desirable, but also which futures are plausible (and not just possible). This work is rooted in the understanding that technology assessment, whether grounded in public participation or expert elicitation, is prospective and thus inevitably tied to notions of time and change (see also Chapter 9 in this volume). Reimagining change is a central component of anticipatory governance, which,alongside other approaches to the governance of emerging technologies, seeks to nurture ‘the ability of a variety of lay and expert stakeholders, both individually and through an array of feedback mechanisms, to collectively imagine, critique, and thereby shape the issues presented by emerging technologies before they become reified in particular ways’ (Barben et al. 2008, 992). Note that the rationale for anticipatory governance also rests on this notion of obduracy, highlighting that the reification of technological systems broaches the Collingridge dilemma (1980): governance is caught between lacking enough information in the present and waiting for perfect knowledge, thus inviting the risk of systems becoming too entrenched for effective change to occur. When publics are asked to critically appraise emerging technologies, they are implicitly asked to tend to both things that might change and those that are more stagnant. However, it is more common in practice to see open-ended changes relayed to citizens, asking them to express their future desires without a more nuanced understanding of the temporalities of socio-technical change. While the public engagement with science has been a mainstay of STS work at large (Stirling 2008; Delgado et al. 2011), and technology assessment methods more particularly (Barben et al. 2008; von Schomberg and Davies 2010), few studies have worked to isolate the role of temporality and the future. To be sure, there has been some progress on this front (Felt and Fochler 2009; Davies 2011), but it is nonetheless the norm to see the future treated as a blank slate. There is a glaring need for a finer, more rigorous incorporation of time and futures into public engagement theory and praxis. Beyond a simple accounting of new methodologies, these enquiries, following the charge of this book, should look to the way in which attention to temporality is mediated through the framing, procedures, technologies and institutional infrastructures of public engagement. We propose that Anique Hommels’s (2005) three conceptual dimensions of obduracy offer clues for how to approach and study different aspects of obduracy. Hommels sees that obduracy – as frames, as embedded and as traditions – provides a way to more richly and reflexively account for technology and advance the grounded appraisal of it. While Hommels has been criticized for lapsing too far into technological determinism (see Kirkman, 2009, for a discussion), we contend the wholesale relinquishing of obduracy shields critical analysis from having to robustly look at ‘the future’ and how it maps onto what already exists. In the context of public engagement, there is much worth preserving and reviving in Hommels’s work. Take, as a case, technology assessment of nanotechnologies. Nanotechnology is most often associated with high-tech lab equipment or new materials; however, a range of different applications have the potential to either become obdurate, moulding future trajectories for better or worse, or else be blocked from realization due to stubborn material, economic, social or technological systems that resist integration with new nanotechnologies. Nanotechnology is still arguably in its early phases of research and development (R&D), but firmly in place is a mythic momentum around what it can and will accomplish. Associated with the term nanotechnology are, according to Christine Peterson, director of ForesightInstitute, ‘huge expectations, as a long-term, exotic, extreme technology’ (as quoted in Selin 2007, 212), and an unwavering commitment to the idea that new technologies equal progress (Marx 1987), as evidenced in policies such as the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which continue to pump billions of dollars into R&D. The persistent rhetoric fuelling investments in nanotechnology has already begun to construct new institutional, political and economic obduracies, all ripe for interrogation through public engagement. As R&D continues, nanotechnologies will, in some form, become embedded in the urban environment. Nanotechnologies are presented as both an ‘enabling technology (on top of other technologies) or a platform (below other technologies) to deliver complementary technologies’ (Wiek et al. 2012, 16), which suggests an easy integration into prevailing systems. Wiek et al. (2013) and Shapira and Youtie (2012) describe a number of such nanotechnology applications: coatings for buildings that make them ‘self-cleaning’; advanced photovoltaic materials that power structures; paints that eliminate glare and do not absorb heat; water filtration systems for individual households; and tailpipe membranes that reduce pollution from vehicles. What most of these applications have in common is how they embed into present sociotechnical networks: they are expected to be layered, painted or otherwise coated onto the already existing world. However, the ease at which nanotechnology will be seamlessly layered into the city is questionable, and tending to obduracy helps tell a fuller, more complicated, story about the promised ubiquity of nanotechnologies. It is with this concern for appreciating obduracy and the constraints, obstacles and surprises attending nanotechnologies that researchers at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU) designed a public engagement exercise to interrogate the future of nanotechnology and the city. As it stands, nanotechnologies have a potential for impending and pervasive ubiquity, yet this also means that they are hard to ‘see’ and draw into the foreground, and thus provide a good case study for how to draw out obduracy. In autumn 2012, CNS-ASU deployed the pilot for the ‘Futurescape City Tours’ (FCT), a public engagement research project centred on nanotechnology that featured an urban walking tour of Phoenix, AZ.1 The three-tiered intervention – an orientation meeting, a walking tour of the city and a deliberative session – mixed ideas of obduracy in concert with imaginative speculation and community-based visioning about the future of nanotechnology in the urban and built environment. The remainder of this chapter hones in on this public engagement research project and describes the novel set of methods that approach temporality and obduracy in a studied fashion. After illustrating obduracy in an urban context, leading to a disentanglement of Hommels’s three dimensions of obduracy, we then describe the Futurescape City Tours, plucking out how obduracy was treated and brought to the fore. The FCT involves an interactive urban walking tour, using photography, reflective writing and group dialogue to support critical debate about nanotechnology in the city. In this chapter we look particularly at the way in which the temporal gaze of the participants was structured in such a way to draw attention toobduracy. We will show how the FCT invites citizens to engage with the future in a tempered fashion, informed by current constraints and material circumstances, thus setting the stage for fuller engagement with temporality. We argue that tending to obduracy is a neglected area of STS generally and relevant to technology assessment and public engagement. In dissecting temporal dispositions in practice, we also tie to perennial questions about the import and consequences of assembling participation and the variety of inputs at stake in engagement. More broadly, this chapter opens up a public engagement practice, by interrogating the underpinning ideas that inform design and looking to the practicalities of structuring future-oriented inquiries. Practices of public engagement are always imbued with thorny questions about framing and boundaries, about what’s up for discussion and what is hidden from view, and this piece contributes to broader discussions in STS about the co-production of participation. Tending to obduracy and how it is rendered in a participatory process is part of the larger impulse to develop a critical engagement with science and technology, which necessitates a reflexive stance about the politics, power and mediation of such processes.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRemaking Participation
Subtitle of host publicationScience, Environment and Emergent Publics
EditorsJason Chilvers, Matthew Kearnes
Place of PublicationNew York NY USA
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781135084707, 9780203797693
ISBN (Print)9780415857390, 9780415857406
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes

Cite this