Constructive controversies: Designing for democratic debate and ethical deliberation in the smart city

Anouk Jacoba Petronella Geenen

Research output: ThesisPhD Thesis - Research UT, graduation UT

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The main goal of this thesis is to explore and enable the constructive use of socio-technical controversies, by means of design approaches, in order to stimulate democratic debate and ethical deliberation about smart cities. Socio-technical controversies are conflicts that follow from the complex interaction between the social and technical aspects of society. The association with controversies is often negative, and they are rather avoided then celebrated. However, controversies reveal what is at stake when introducing technology in the urban sphere. In other words, controversies are places where politics ‘happens’: a plurality of perspectives comes together, values are negotiated and new social practices emerge, forming spaces of self-organized participation and value-assessment. In this thesis, therefore, I suggest to embrace controversies as entry points to a more democratic debate on smart cities. Moreover, I argue that controversies allow a re-entering of public values into this democratic debate. By understanding controversies as resource rather than a burden, I aim to enhance the democratic debate on smart cities with a stronger emphasis on the values at stake that ignite the issues of importance. Through operationalizing controversies, I seek to open up space for debate, where diverse perspectives and a plurality of values can co-exist and lead to creative yet critical resolutions.

This research concerns a societal need and scientific question in interaction with each other – discussing democratic participation in relation to the smart city raises research questions at the intersection of the ethics of technology, political theory and public debate, which are both theoretical and practical in nature. As a result, this transdisciplinary thesis embodies the theoretical conceptualization of controversies, whilst incorporating their societal character and engaging input from stakeholder representing the quadruple helix: research, government, industry and civil society.

To achieve this, I propose design as a means to operationalize socio-technical controversies. Through a Research-through-Design process, I develop and evaluate two distinct design approaches to work with socio-technical controversies: the Network of Conflicts (Ch 4) and Future Frictions (Ch 5). By making issues visible and experiential, design helps to create agonistic public spaces that aim at constructively dealing with disagreements without necessarily resolving conflict. In conclusion, I show that the combination of controversy-thinking and design techniques provides a valuable approach for rethinking democratic debate and ethical deliberation in the smart city.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Twente
  • van der Voort, Mascha C., Supervisor
  • Verbeek, Peter-Paul C.C., Supervisor
  • Ozkaramanli - Leerkes, Deger, Co-Supervisor
Award date5 Oct 2023
Place of PublicationEnschede
Print ISBNs978-90-365-5777-1
Electronic ISBNs978-90-365-5778-8
Publication statusPublished - 5 Oct 2023


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