Are Smart Communities Necessarily more Socially Engaged?

by: Ana Boa-Ventura / University of Texas-Austin

The Flow conference 2006 included a panel on “Public Sphere, Public Media in an Open Source Age” that I was honored to moderate – you can visit the blog entry at (scroll down to the topic of the conference and comment if you would like). This article is not a summary of that panel but rather some after-thoughts, further informed by what I heard later at the Incommunity conference, which I helped coordinate in San Diego, CA. In the latter, the angle taken on public media and public sphere was one of “smart communities”: the empowerment of communities through technology and repercussions at the levels of civic responsibility and political engagement. The FLOW panel on Public Sphere and the InCommunity event “flow” together to the extent that they both questioned alternative “places” for social responsibility and political involvement, at a time when “government” does not seem to offer that engagement anymore.

I will start by putting InCommunity in its right context. This event was part of the InFormation year organized by HASTAC – Humanities, Arts, Sciences and Technology Advanced Collaboratory. HASTAC (read as “haystack”) is a consortium of scientists, humanists, artists, social theorists, and information technology specialists who believe that it is the creative discovery across disciplines that must drive the cyberinfrastructure. In 2003, NSF defined “cyberinfrastructure” as the new research environments that support advanced data acquisition, storage, management, integration, mining, and visualization over the Internet. The Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities are no exception to this search for technological solutions that may enable an effective and efficient connection between data, computers, and people. The InFormation Year 2006/2007, which the InCommunity event was part of, is dedicated to forming new creative networks between scholars in the areas that HASTAC embraces. It should not be surprising then that high in the InFormation Year's priorities was the topic of communities.

InCommunity was about “smart communities”. The qualifier “smart” is used here as in what wikipedia labels as “branded cliché” (in expressions such as “smart cards” or “smart growth”) but also in its literal sense… As communities empowered by technology are arguably more intelligent and with better chances of survival / success than those that are not. During two days, scholars, theorists and community practitioners discussed the role technology is playing in the community.

Speakers included Brian O'Connell, John Eger and Howard Rheingold (this one, remotely). Each took a different angle on the complex issue of how communities are using technology. O'Connell, who recently published “Fifty Years In Public Causes: Stories From A Road Less Traveled”, focused on civic responsibility and engagement; Eger, who has written extensively about smart communities talked about political responsibility and that new forms for that engagement must be shaped at a time when “government” is no longer the main “place” for that participation; Rheingold has for long defended the power of technology – and namely mobile media – in participatory democracy.

What are the spaces for public participation? What is the role played by and similar sites? What are the consequences of having large corporations such as release their code? Are these alternative spaces actually contributing towards a greater civic responsibility and social participation?

Risking oversimplification it was clear to me from the 2 conferences that with few exceptions in each group, the communication and media scholars are mostly positive about the perspectives offered by public media, and the answers to the question in the previous paragraph, while the civic society theorists are mostly skeptical about the impact that participatory media are having in political engagement. Questions about new forms of civic responsibility and social participation seem to arise in both groups, although formulated in distinct ways. HASTAC's fundamental objective is to have different disciplines work together to devise ways of designing the new research environments that the Internet offers. Having participated in both events suggests that it is important that sociologists working in the areas of civic society talk to media scholars working in the fields of public media, and that both groups talk to Information Technology specialists to assess and further develop the technologies and design the “places” that may effectively support and strengthen social responsibility.

I end with a note. Both events took place at a time that will be sadly remembered as a dramatic historical marker in the history of public media through the recent death of Indymedia reporter Bradley Will, who died in Oaxaca, Mexico. Real journalists die doing real coverage for online, independent media. In a strange twist of irony, this has been reported by the mainstream media as the first time an Indymedia journalist dies but the first was in fact 23 year old Lenin Cali Najera, founding member of Indymedia Guayaquil (Ecuador).


Amidon, Debra and Bryan Davis. “In the Knowledge Zone”. Knowledge Management magazine. October, 2004.

Atkins, Daniel (Chair); Revolutionizing Science and Engineering Through Cyberinfrastructure; National Science Foundation Blue Ribbon Panel Report,
January 2003. Retrieved from Retrieved November 9, 2006

O'Connell, Brian. Fifty Years in Public Causes: Stories from a Road Less Traveled. Lebanon, NH: Tufts University Press, 2005.

Rheingold, Howard. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books, 2002.

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One comment

  • In every invocation of the word “community,” I hear it weighted positively. However, at the same time, groups of people — even groups of people bound together by something like familiar ties, history, or common interests — are not inherently good. “Smart” communities may well be more effective in certain ways than other communities, but we should be careful, I believe, in assuming that any communities are inherently good.

    Words like “family” and “community” are dangerous in part because of how they are used in the political arena. Rarely defined, but often invoked, these terms can serve as the impetus for moral panics of all stripes.

    If “smart communities” are better than other communities, it may well be in part because of factors that have little to do with their smartness, factors like their humanity or kindness.

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