Mackinnon, D., Burns, R., & Fast (2023) (Eds.). Digital (In)justice in the Smart City. University of Toronto Press.

In the contemporary moment, smart cities have become the dominant paradigm for urban planning and administration, weaving the urban fabric with digital technologies. Recently, however, the promises of smart cities have been gradually supplanted by recognition of their inherent inequalities, and scholars are increasingly working to envision alternative smart cities. Informed by these pressing challenges, Digital (In)justice in the Smart City foregrounds discussions of how we should think of and work toward urban digital justice in the smart city. It provides a deep exploration of the sources of injustice that percolate throughout a range of sociotechnical assemblages, and it questions whether working toward more just, sustainable, livable, and egalitarian cities requires that we look beyond the limitations of “smartness” altogether. The book grapples with how geographies impact smart city visions and roll-outs, on one hand, and how (unjust) geographies are produced in smart pursuits, on the other. Ultimately, Digital (In)justice in the Smart City envisions alternative cities – smart or merely digital – and outlines the sorts of roles that the commons, utopia, and the law might take on in our conceptions and realizations of better cities.

Burns, R., Fast., V., & Mackinnon, D. (2023). Toward urban digital justice: The smart city as an empty signifier. In D. Mackinnon, R. Burns & V. Fast (Eds.). Digital (In)justice in the Smart City. University of Toronto Press.

Here, we step back to challenge the assumptions that get worked into smart when applied to a particular form of urbanism, and to broadly offer deeper insights into how injustice circulates though digital urban systems. Drawing on the thought of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, we argue that the qualifier smart, when applied to cities, is an empty signifier—a pointer without a referent, a signifier without a signified. It contains no inherent meaning on its own, but remains powerful in its flexible application potential. The concept of empty signifiers is a useful theoretical and analytical tool to illuminate the uneven, contingent, and contested implications of the ambivalent meanings of terms and ideas that actors use to characterize smart cities. Conceiving of smart in smart city as an empty signifier, then, opens new avenues for pursuing digital justice. As we work to make sense of the ways in which smart seems to enrol simultaneously powerful, contradictory, normative, and fearful urban discourses and epistemologies, the empty signifier offers a productive way forward for thinking about the injustices of smartness.

Mackinnon, D. (2022). Platforms, and Privatizing Lines: Business Improvement Areas, Municipal Apps, and Directing Public Service. In A. Luscombe, D. Silva & K. Walby (Eds.) Changing of the Guards: Private Influences, Privatization, and Criminal Justice in Canada. University of British Columbia Press

Cities and the private sector have rolled out a range of market and tech-based “solutions” to replace and augment forms of urban governance, policing and service delivery. Referred to as new public management or entrepreneurial urbanism, Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) and their evolving practices, exemplify the confluence of these variegated corporate models. Fixtures on urban landscape, BIAs and their membership have become “frontline workers” left to navigate systemic urban problems such as affordable housing, informal settlements, cuts to social services, and more recently the opioid crisis. Not in the business of solving these problems – it’s not their job and they can’t – BIAs have focused on the performance of “clean and safe” areas for consumption. To carry out this policing and maintenance work, across North America and Europe BIAs are increasingly adopting applications and platforms in order to surveil, account for, and report objects, places and people in their areas. This short article interrogates the intersections of policing, private security, and mobile 311 applications.

Mackinnon, D. (2021). Policing by another name and entity: BIAs, delegation, and public and private technologies. Criminological Encounters, 4(1), 206-211. doi:10.26395/CE21040116

To “influence conduct or maintain order in urban spaces” (Lippert & Walby, 2013: 1) or, in short, to police, BIAs across North America and Europe are increasingly adopting smart(er) technologies in or- der to surveil, account for, and report objects, places and people in their areas (Mackinnon, 2019a). Focused on value creation and “improvement”, these public and private mobile applications and digital platforms are used by BIAs to: count and file maintenance requests concerning the built environment and street assets, report minor offences to the city, and, in some cases, tag unhoused people and record antisocial behaviour.

Mackinnon, D. (2020). Activated alleyways: Mobilising clean and safe dwelling in Business Improvement Areas. In L. Anders & A. Zhang (Eds.) Transforming Cities Through Temporary Urbanism (pp. 155-169). Springer.

This chapter explores the role of Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) in the production and promotion of placemaking and activation. Since the 1970s, placemaking—a term generally used by architects and developers to describe design practices that bring personality to urban landscapes—has gained traction amongst governments, planners, and businesses as a tool for economic and social revitalization. BIAs, focused on the creation and management of value, have incorporated elements of broken windows policing into their mandates of “clean and safe”, beautification and place-making. In seeking to add value to their areas, BIAs have turned their attention to the “forgotten”, “inefficient” and “underutilized” spaces in cities. Alleyways, in particular, have become critical sites of intervention portrayed in need of “reclamation”, “revitalization” and “recovery”. However, for whom or what are these spaces being reclaimed? This chapter analyzes the mobility of activation scripts, as well as their granular application through the case of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association’s alleyway activation project “More Awesome Now”. Predicated on alleyways as multiple objects, these business-led reclamation and claims making projects attempt to stabilize use and design-out crime and disorder. By securing clean and safe dwelling in these areas, the activation of alleyways through the installation of hostile architecture extends the BIA brandscape, capturing public spaces for corporate use.

Carver, LF. & Mackinnon, D. (2020). Health applications of gerontechnology, privacy, and surveillance: A scoping review. Surveillance & Society, 18(2), 216-230.

In this era of technological advances designed to assist older adults to age in place and monitor health challenges, the emphasis has been on the surveillance of older adults for their safety and the peace of mind of caregivers. This article focuses on two emerging gerontechnologies: wearables and smart home or ambient assistive living (AAL) devices. In order to explore the intersections of the ageing enterprise and surveillance capitalism, this scoping review addresses the following questions: (1) what are the existing technologies; (2) what are the privacy concerns raised by participants, researchers, and caregivers due to intended and unintended uses of these technologies? Specifically, this article synthesizes twenty relevant sources concerning the surveillance potentials of these gerontechnologies and the privacy implications for adults aged sixty-five and over. While these technologies may offer older adults greater autonomy/safety and caregivers peace of mind, their surveillance and privacy infringement potentials cannot be overlooked or cast as a trade-off. Amidst the automation of the care, collection, combination, and commodification of various forms of personal, health, and wellness metadata, the right to privacy, dignity, and ageing in place must remain central to the adoption and use of these technologies.

Mackinnon, D. (2019). Piecing it together, studying public private partnerships: Freedom of information as oligoptic technologies. In K. Walby & A. Luscombe (Eds.) Freedom of Information and Social Science Research Design (pp. 123-137). Routledge.

Access to Information and Freedom of Information (FOI) mechanisms are increasingly used to gather data about state surveillance, security and intelligence. However, the rise of new public management and entailed chains of custody and control challenge the utility of these mechanisms for gathering information. While not suggesting a repositivising of social science research, I contend these oligoptic mechanisms – when pieced together with document analysis, interviews and participant observation – are a valuable means of gathering insights into the creation and nature of public–private partnerships, and interoperability of para-governmental agencies more broadly. This chapter traces one such public–private partnership – the creation of a business improvement area security information sharing network. Established in the aftermath of the Stanley Cup Riot and Occupy Vancouver, I highlight various vantage points into studying this policing network. These additive and cascading methods, when overlaid, help make sense of the mess, multiplicity and constitutive influence of FOI data production.

Murakami Wood, D. & Mackinnon, D. (2019). Partial platforms: Oligoptic surveillance in the smart city. Surveillance & Society, 17(1/2), 176-182.

Smart city technologies are proliferating in our urban environments. The latest iteration of the urban techno-fix, cities on a global level have begun piloting and plugging into a range of “smart” infrastructure and IoT, resulting in granular and even enactments of “the actually existing smart city.” Rather than evoking the once promised vision of the totalizing smart city, the adoption of these technologies draws attention to the fractured, varied, and layered characteristics of these systems. This paper draws on research into GeoPal, an asset management platform used mainly by business improvement areas (BIAs)—in order to ground our theoretical discussion of oligoptic geospatial surveillance.

Richardson, S., & Mackinnon, D. (2018). Becoming your own device: Promoting self tracking challenges in the workplace. Canadian Journal of Sociology43(3), 265-290.

Workplaces have long sought to improve employee productivity and performance by monitoring and tracking a variety of indicators. Increasingly, these efforts target the health and wellbeing of the employee – recognizing that a healthy and active worker is a productive one. Influenced by managerial trends in personalized and participatory medicine (Swan 2012), some workplaces have begun to pilot their own programs, utilizing fitness wearables and personal analytics to reduce sedentary lifestyles. These programs typically take the form of gamified self-tracking challenges combining cooperation, competition, and fundraising to incentivize participants to get moving. While seemingly providing new arrows in the bio-political quiver – that is, tools to keep employees disciplined yet active, healthy yet profitable (Lupton 2012) – there is also a certain degree of acceptance and participation. Although participants are shaped by self-tracking technologies, “they also, in turn, shape them by their own ideas and practices” (Ruckenstein 2014: 70). In this paper, we argue that instead of viewing self-tracking challenges solely through discourses of power or empowerment, the more pressing question concerns “how our relationship to our tracking activities takes shape within a constellation of habits, cultural norms, material conditions, ideological constraints” (Van Den Eede 2015: 157). We confront these tensions through an empiric case study of self-tracking challenges for staff and faculty at two Canadian universities. By cutting through the hype, this paper uncovers how self-trackers are becoming (and not just left to) their own devices.

Mackinnon, D. (2018). Surveillance ready subjects: The making of Canadian anti-masking law. In L. Melgaço & J. Monaghan (Eds.) Protests in the Information Age: Social Movements, Digital Practices and Surveillance (pp. 151-168). Routledge.

Efforts to pre-emptively control space and order people have been ushered in on a global scale. Exemplifying these efforts, anti-masking laws have been presented as a ‘tool’ that would enable law enforcers and law makers to more quickly and efficiently identify and process riots. Drawing on Access to Information and Freedom of Information releases, news reports, and parliamentary debates, this chapter analyses the discursive construction of pre-emptive control and logics of anticipation that grounded initial discussions of anti-masking law in the Canadian context. It is argued that masks were made a key indicator of violent intent at public demonstrations; an indicator, used to both construct and subsequently identify the illegal and the unlawful. Rather than criminalizing an action – the wearing of a mask – the law more problematically widens the net, capturing populations both violating and adhering to the law. Anti-masking legislation becomes a way of targeting groups, creating criminal records, and ordering bodies. By criminalizing practices of public invisibility, these indicators optimize the surveillance-ready-subject, formally requiring bodies to become standardized data portraits that are interoperable with other systems of identifying criminality.

Mackinnon, D., & Richardson, S. (2017). “Defined in the past, designed in the present”: Revitalization and tinkering with spatial scripts at Lansdowne Park. Spaces & Flows: An International Journal of Urban & Extra Urban Studies, 8(2).

With a 140-year history of fairs, exhibitions, sporting events, and concerts at Lansdowne Park, the City of Ottawa, in partnership with commercial, residential, and community stakeholders, began its revitalization in 2012. Reopened to the public in Fall 2014, the “New” Lansdowne Park promises something for everyone–blending luxury consumer goods, sport, and entertainment with notions of sustainable development, locality, and modern aesthetics. Yet, beneath this marketed exuberance resides the use of the space as it is experienced. Visitors, residents, and workers alike engage in continuous processes of redefining and remaking the vitality of space–indications that revitalization is not simply the scripting of space or social practice. Instead, we argue that it is more precise to describe vitalization as a process of iterative remaking that calls into question “revitalized for whom or what?” In view of this goal, this paper draws upon news media, business publications, participant observation, and interviews to trace the use of space as it unfolds and shapes Lansdowne Park. In doing so, we contribute to discussions of urban planning, revitalization, and contesting urban futures.