James Auger | workshop
The current EU Horizon 2020 call ‘Smart Anything Everywhere’ speaks to an idea of imagining what ‘smart’ could be in the broadest, most open sense. Anything. Anywhere. But despite this openness, the smart imaginary remains stagnated. Why is this the case? ‘Smart’ normally combines an existing object or system, for example a fridge, car, or city - updated with the latest sensory or computational technology to achieve a level of autonomy or agency.
While ‘smartness’ as an attribute seems desirable, under closer scrutiny the bar is often set disappointingly low. ‘Smart’ commonly gets confused with other adjectives, like ‘automated’ or ‘efficient’ resulting in products that pre-emptively satisfy basic desires.
Smart products however, can reduce human participation or narrow down possibility to what is detectable or quantifiable. Automation does, admittedly, operate on different levels of smart: smart bombs or smart cars. Guiding a bomb is complex and the system developed to achieve this is perhaps capable of performing the act better than a human. But is it ethically smart? Likewise the automated car - very smart mechanically and computationally. But socially? Experientially? Ecologically? Then there is the issue of the generic user of these smart objects, who is overwhelmingly young, wealthy, male - never a complex, troubled mixed-family.
So how can we begin to develop a new smart? What role can designers play in order to address the complex societal problems that face us, beyond basic smart products? How can research through design be helpful to rethink the notion of smartness?