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Ciutat Vella and Project Alias win STARTS

Ciutat Vella and Project Alias win STARTS

STARTS, the European Commission’s science / tech / arts programme, has revealed its winners for another year. The Collaboration prize goes to the Barcelona district of Ciutat Vella, and the Exploration prize goes to Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen’s work Project Atlas.

Ciutat Vella aimed to develop a new form of urban planning through big data and citizen participation. The project went through four phases: research, co-creation, proposal, and approval. The research phase looked at the impact of night-time noise on health and tourism, with outputs fed into a “data atlas”. For co-creation, residents were involved through public events and forums, alongside the Barcelona city council. The intention was to give residents “sovereignty” over the data which was being collected about them.

The proposal phase developed various scenarios, with their appropriate impacts on noise, traffic, and pollution. The approval of the final plan was made in 2018 and has been deployed into the city since, with the overriding view being that the city should be “above the free market as a community good”.

Here’s what the STARTS jury had to say about the project, which had the eventual title of 300.000 Km/s.

"In Jean-Luc Godard's seminal 1965 film by the same name, "Alphaville" was a dystopian smart city that was optimized and consequently ruled by a central computer processor labelled "IBM." And come the early days of the implementation (and eventual failure) of early versions of these technologies around the year 2000, smart cities were in fact presented as glitzier versions of Alphaville.

In today's updated version of Alphaville, we see Big Tech succeeding both technically and politically in applying technologies more familiar to us on our smartphones to entire city neighborhoods, namely the Toronto waterfront. Yet again as in *Alphaville*, a data-driven ecosystem is being erected in which the extent of citizens' participation is restricted to the mere configuration of tools that were designed and developed by overlord-like companies. And given Godard's grim vision of the data-driven city, it is no wonder that citizens across the globe today are worried by what this increasing integration of sensors and data-collection into our cities augurs for our collective futures.

300.000 Km/s represents a refreshing alternative path for smart city technologies. The Barcelona initiative wants to reverse the top down, Big Tech-led smart city approach by putting citizens first, and using arts, technology, and data science to unleash the potential of human-centered urban planning and innovation. It proposes an urban plan designed through a large-scale participatory democratic process that engages thousands of citizens via an online platform called decidim.barcelona. The objective is to then apply the learnings and insights gathered through this platform to tackle gentrification and find a balance between urban design interventions that serve tourists and the city's other commercial and economic engines, and interventions that serve the day-to-day needs of local residents. Can the digital layer influence how urban planners grapple with questions of social justice and health such that our cities champion the common good over capitalist gains for the few? Can the arts, data science, and democratic participation revive social, ecological, and economic equities in our urban spaces? In grappling with these questions, this work shows us compelling news way to meld crowdsourcing and data analysis to erect a new collective infrastructure for a shared, prosperous, urban future."

Project Alias is a device placed on top of smart home speaker systems to control them. If you want your smart speaker to stop listening to the world around it - or, to use another more sinister term, eavesdropping - simply place Alias on top, and it will muffle the microphone with a low-level white noise. Simply say it’s wake word to stop Alias’ interception, and to get your smart speaker to listen again.

The thinking of Alias is based on fungi and viruses, that infect insects and manipulate their behaviour. We covered the project back in January.

STARTS’ jury spake thusly of the project:

“As many domains of our private and social lives are being transfigured by new technologies of identification, monitoring, analyzing, and controlling, Karmann's fungus-looking "parasitic" device offers a poetic yet concrete DIY intervention that allows anyone to appropriate any voice-activated appliances, thus making smart assistants less invasive. As the project title suggests, Karmann effectively uses the artistic *alienation effect* ("making it strange," or defamiliarization) to make the technology different and alien to us, as something to be carefully observed, learned, and potentially changed. It is a magnificent example of turning poesis into praxis, offering a balance in conveying technology's means of communicability while effectively changing its mediality.

Project Alias exemplifies how contemporary technologies—in this case, smart assistants—require that we open ourselves to the *passive* reception of the condition under which technology can be used: the user is used by the voice assistant in order to collect data about our private lives and environments. The medium is indeed the message, as McLuhan used to say, and we the users and our private data increasingly, and in some cases unintentionally, become the content of that message. Project Alias offers to flip these power relations on their head, allowing us a more reciprocal exchange: producing white noise to prevent the speaker from constantly listening or teaching it to recognize our voice to help secure our privacy.

Project Alias breathes new life into the metaphor of the parasite by turning it into an applicable political tool, hijacking a technological "host" in order to change their operations and in turn affect their relations to their surroundings. The parasitic intervention can take one of two forms: the host might do all it can to eradicate the parasite, or it might rearrange things to *accommodate the needs* of the parasite. In either case, the presence of the parasite means that things cannot, and will not, remain the same. Project Alias, the jury hopes, will prompt the industry to incorporate and adjust to this parasitic disturbance and provide us with transparency and control over our own technological environments."

Congratulations to both projects, who win a prize of €20,000 each.

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