In the academic year 2017-18, I had the pleasure of being visiting fellow at the Pufendorf Institute at the University of Lund, in the DATA theme. Interdisciplinarity was a recurring topic in the exchanges with members of the theme group and the other visiting scholars. In particular, I had the opportunity of speaking on this topic at the closing workshop of the theme group, when I reflected on the intersection of interdisciplinarity with Big Data (or as I prefer to formulate it, as a practice and not as a object/thing, the intensification of data in knowledge production).
Interdisciplinarity, as a ‘framing issue’ and in relation to digital data, is coming up again in a budding collaboration. This gave rise to a very nice first brainstorm with Noortje Marres and Sybille Lammes in the cracks of the conference Science and Technology Indicators 2018 in Leiden.
Two related questions that I had started addressing last year resurfaced for me in that stimulating conversation: Why would we want to shape/nurture/defend/score with interdisciplinary practices in the first place? And in particular, how do we entwine interdisciplinarity and different types of data-intensive practices?
I hope to think with this emerging group further about this, and am consolidating some of my answers-in-the-making here:
Think hooks, like on a well functioning piece of velcro… knowledge that has been produced in contact, interaction or exchange with other disciplines or other practices is knowledge that is not hermetic, that has hooks that can allow it to connect to other surfaces. It is knowledge that can stick, it is knowledge that can bind.
Interdisciplinary interaction creates these hooks through friction –roughening up the surface through contact. And these interactions clarify what is needed for the hooks and eyes to meet.
Like any of us in a self-conscious moment, knowledge that has been produced in an interdisciplinary context is knowledge that knows how to blush, that is visibly, outwardly modest. It knows its limitations, it’s aware of its assumptions, it’s sensitive to boundaries.
This third aspect is the one where I see specific features of knowledge most clearly being shaped by the intersection of data intensification and interdisciplinarity. Processes of data intensification involve increased formalisation. Across projects (at the Virtual Knowledge Studio and later in Energysense) I experienced again and again how formalisation and infrastructural work that are part of data intensification are crucial ways of becoming aware of assumptions, limitations and opportunities. Building digital resources together involves intense interaction about the epistemic practices of research. And these yield important experiences and insights, especially resonant when they are formed in the course of providing each other with accounts–in the sense of stories, not in the sense of communication of financial information about economic entities.
What might that look like, really concretely? Once you’ve had to explain your work to someone from another discipline or to the data scientists or designers in the team, and when you’ve repeatedly experienced how a question about how to formalize a type of data or result leads to a question about methods, then to concepts, and traditions in the field and then back to data collection, once you’ve really explained these connected practices forwards and backwards so that the others get it, once you’ve really explored what formalisation can and cannot do and felt through playing around with the prototype how infrastructuring changes you research practices… you’ll find it hard to think about your data and disciplinary baggage as something self-evident and transparent and to separate it from these accounts.
Perhaps I am getting quite normative in middle-age. In any case, I’m curious and excited to see how these questions and answers will develop in the course of further collaboration with colleagues at CWTS, Leiden University and at the Center for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick.
Sunday 17 June was the big day: the Speedman Triathlon. It was hugely fun is the best way to summarise the event. With a time of 1 hour 30 minutes and 40 seconds, I was quite pleased. As expected the swim was quite fast; I surprised myself by finishing the cycling (22km) 6 minutes faster than I expected and the run went pretty much according to plan.
The main goal was to repeat my ‘fearless’ approach, as practiced in the Zwemloop in April, and I was very happy with how that worked out. Cycling probably went faster (in spite of fairly strong breeze) through the competitor effect: I usually ride alone, and seeing people ahead was a very motivating factor. And my family was a big support: Maarten was there throughout, shouted at me at every possible occasion that I was going very fast (at least, that’s what I think he was saying), and took the pictures below. Felix also generously worked as a volunteer, getting up at 6 am to help set out the barriers along the course.
In the ten days running up to the competition, I had the usual challenges of feeling restless (less training=more time to think!) and feeling the ghosts of injuries past. Luckily I had been forewarned that these are typical tapering symptoms, and that helped take things with a grain of salt. Note to self: plan a movie or other activity the night before. It was a very LONG evening.
An interesting challenge in setting up my transition area: the bike racks were so big that I could not rack my bike normally: if I did, the entire bike was hanging off the ground, and because of the wind, it swayed back and forth. It didn’t seem like a good idea to leave it like that (can you get disqualified for something like that?) and I figured an alternative ‘parking’ modus. So no, it wasn’t a newbie thing, it was a size thing.
The event itself
Having arrived quite early, I had lots of time to go through my ‘routine’ and check out the course and get set up. Also chatted up a couple of competitors, which helped make the time go by until the start. The swim was great: I took up a spot right at the front, in the second row (fearless!) and had the feeling I hardly had to do anything, was just going with the flow. I did slow down a bit at one point, as I felt I was getting a bit too much out of breath, but that was the only time in the whole competition that I held back (’cause, you know, fearless). I came out of the water and was 30th or so. The transition went by in a flash and I didn’t forget anything. Cycling was a lot of fun, partly because having to adapt to the wind in this course with quite a few turns and bends kept me busy. And I had Bla bla bla in my head to keep me going.
Before I knew it, my watch was telling me I had cycled 18 km! Off the bike and unto the 8-shaped race course for two loops. And no jelly legs!?!! Perhaps because of the long transition jog. Whatever the reason, I didn’t mind skipping that. My legs felt like they were on automatic pilot and I found myself staring at 5.02 and 5.05 paces, which helped to ignore the stitches I had (both sides) and which thankfully went away after about 20 minutes. On the way up the HILL, the pace slowed to 7.00 but I’ll be prepared for that next time. The final 700 meters were hard and I really had to push myself to keep it going and enjoy a strong finish.
A bit of chit chat to co-competitors and volunteers from my club, savouring some coloured water that tasted like the finest champagne, and meeting up with Maarten. He drove back home while I slowly gathered myself together. I was funny to realize that I had worked out the entire day up to that moment–and had to work hard to turn my brain back on and think about what I was meant to be doing. Managed to cycle home. Showered and glowed and met up with good friends to raise a glass–and that was really the perfect end to this day!
Later in the week, after a little swim of 10 minutes on Monday and a recovery run on Thursday, I was feeling functional again. The soreness was not so surprising, but the overall tiredness (also mental) I felt until Wednesday morning was. Something to keep in mind next time–plan a half day off!
So, that was that, back to training
But, surprise, it wasn’t all done and dusted! On Friday afternoon, I received an email from the NTB (Dutch Triathlon Association), inviting me to join the Dutch Age-Group Team for the European Championship. Eh? What?! My first reaction was to check whether the mail was indeed intended for me. It seems it was. Who would have thought? I mean, I know triathlon is not a very big sport and that women my age are busy doing other (useful) stuff, but qualifying for such an event certainly put my efforts in a different light. Because it falls mid-August when we’re in Canada, I won’t be going to Glasgow. But it sure is nice to be asked!
Embrace the suck…and the success
‘Embrace the suck’ is one of those triathlon mantras that is as ugly as it is useful. But triathlon is also teaching me about artifice, about the games I play with myself and about what matters and about what works. So, after a day of disclaimers, which I will spare you here, I am embracing the success! First of all, this invitation impressed my teenage son–and how often does that happen these days. Second, thinking about what might be behind this performance is probably more useful than figuring out all the ways it which it doesn’t mean so much after all.
So, what contributed to this:
So, if I keep doing these things, and take up the dates of the next European Championship in my diary at the start of 2019, who knows… I might be slipping into something black and orange next year.
In any case, this was an unforgettable first tri.
Anna Pillinger, Stefan Lasser, Harrie Mort, Tzu-Min Chang (photo), Anne Beaulieu and participants of the course “Energy and Big Data: Transition and the informational turn in Energy.” University of Vienna, Summer Term, 2018.
On a crisp Friday morning the students of the seminar class “Big Data and Energy: Transition in the Informational Turn in Energy” at the University of Vienna and took the underground to the end of the line, emerging in a part of Vienna that even few Viennese have ever seen. Our destination was the Aspern Smart City Research (ASCR) demo centre at Seestadt, where we hoped to gain an insight into how energy and big data were being brought together and perhaps see some of the concepts and issues raised in the seminar in action. In the seminar, we discussed how data seems to be everywhere in contemporary society, including energy. Precisely because of this ubiquity, it is important to consider how data is created and used, and how it circulates, so that we can understand the implications for the energy transition, whether in the business sector, private and public life. The intersection of energy and big data also has a physical dimension, and exploring this was part of the motivation for our excursion.
An exploration of the materials on the ASCR website and a brainstorming session in class led to a set of questions on three main areas of interest:
These sensitising questions were to direct our gaze and our inquiries as we explored the demo centre.
Experiencing a smart neighbourhood
How did this visit enable us to experience a smart neighbourhood? Our tour of the demo center was divided into two parts. In the first part of the tour, we were shown into a room where a model of the district occupied most of the space. Our experience of the smart neighbourhood in this case was predominantly considering the various elements as our tour guide pointed them out. In the course of her explanations, the guide taught us to ‘see’ the model, noting the elements that distinguished the already built portions from those that were virtual and yet to be built. On only one occasion was there a link with the outside world, where she pointed out of the window at a crane which was engaged in constructing one of the more iconic buildings: a skyscraper to be made almost exclusively of wood. No windmills or solar panels were apparent in the model, leading us to question the tour guide about whether energy was visible in this landscape; however, our guide enforced a strict division between spatial/planning issues and energy, and this question was not to be answered until we entered the other room: the energy room.
This room was set up almost as a mirror image to the model display. In the previous room, we had surrounded the neighbourhood, whereas in the ‘energy room’ we were surrounded by the displays. Here, everything was surface: the walls were covered with texts and screens and lights, and even the floor was used to display elements of the projects. Neither space emphasised interactivity. In the energy room, the only interactive element was a vertical drawer that could be ‘pulled out’ from within a dividing wall on which different users were presented. This revealed the floor plan of a typical dwelling on which, the sensors and home energy management systems were drawn.
The focus of this part of our visit was the need for housing in Vienna, with further attention being given to the desirability of creating neighbourhoods in which people could both live and work, reducing mobility needs. The ASCR project aimed to further reduce individual commuting by limiting parking spaces, providing outstanding public transport connections and implementing shared bicycle plans.
Typical urban planning elements were part of the presentation, such as density and parking allocation, the combination of recreation and employment opportunities, and the multi-cultural infrastructures such as an multi-faith building.
The Aims and Technologies of the ASCR Project
Innovations and Business Models
The main goal of the ASCR is improving energy efficiency, which allows us to begin to relate this endeavor to the narratives of energy transition that are outlined in the book “After Oil” (Szeman & Group, 2016). The fact that it is a public-private partnership, with the emphasis on “private” raises questions about the dynamics of innovation driven by large corporations. Siemens is the main actor in the partnership and this seems to be reflected in the research, which is inscribed with a corporate logic: research is to lead to prototypes and new business models, which will in turn fuel the energy transition. Most of the envisioned improvements are assumed to be realizable through two main strategies: the introduction of smart infrastructures (e.g. for trading energy), which would require regulatory changes in order to be rolled out on a large scale, and the introduction of smart devices (e.g. smart washing machine which automatically chooses the best time, energy-wise, to run). The promise of smart grids to contribute to efficiency was once again put forth (Beaulieu, 2016). To test this, available components are integrated into real-life housing in the neighbourhood. After solving engineering challenges and implementing quality assurance algorithms, the use and interaction between these various innovations are tested, forming the prototypes for new products and services. With regards to pursuing this kind of innovative research that relies on new types of data, the importance of monitoring data quality was also emphasised as a ‘lesson learned’ in the early phase of the project.
The projects in the demo are divided into several research areas: Smart Building, Smart Grid, Smart User and Smart ICT. One of the most intriguing to us was that of the Smart Users, who were to be engaging with the smart technologies as they were rolled out. Residents were enthusiastic about participating in the project; in fact, more wanted to participate than could be accommodated The majority saw participation as a way to contribute to a more sustainable future, so given the level of enthusiasm, how did the ARSC aim to ensure that the inhabitants behaved in a “smart” way? One technique to be explored wills be Gamification, meaning applying game mechanisms in non-game contexts and, in doing so, encourage the users to contribute to energy efficiency. Currently, the modulation of user behaviour is restricted to offering different energy prices at different time points; however, in the future a more sophisticated version could be developed. This triggered some of us to think about a possible scenario, where households get scored on their consumptions and neighbours try to outdo each other. One could not deny that this might have a positive effect on the energy consumption; however, the cohabitation and solidarity of the inhabitants of this Smart City might suffer. It has already been observed that tensions can arise within households, upon the introduction of home energy management systems (Hargreaves, Wilson, & Hauxwell-Baldwin, 2018)(Hargreaves, Wilson & Hauxwell-Baldwin, 2018) so it is more than likely that similar dynamics could arise between households, dynamics that are reminiscent of the episode ‘Nosedive’ of the dystopian series Black Mirror.
A Space of Innovation
The greater context of energy systems and regulations, including the market reforms of the 90s and first decade of this century, provided useful background to understand how a special space for innovation and experimentation has been created in this district. Experimenting with batteries, one of the aims of the ASCR Project, is only possible in a context of exception to European regulation, where energy producers (Wien Energie) and network operators (Wiener Netze) are actually allowed to work together. Interestingly, other boundaries, such as the rules forbidding cooling technologies in subsidised housing in Vienna had not yet been circumvented, preventing experimentation with the floor heating system, for example. It was interesting to see that the EU was easier to convince than the municipality of Vienna!
Function of the Demo Centre
Our final area of interest was the function of the Demo Centre and how it acted as an interface between research, novel technologies and different publics. They play a particular role in proving new technologies, in engaging and configuring users, familiar subjects of research within Science and Technology Studies(Rosental, 2013)(Bherer, Gauthier, & Simard, 2017). Such spaces created visions for technologies, inviting us to embrace them. We were mainly invited to see and learn from the materials presented, and from the brochures we could take home with us. We learned from our guide that the majority of visitors are international business people, many of whom worked for Siemens and had a distinct interest in the prototypes. Other visitors hailed from the World Bank or from the EU, with the occasional group of students, though, as our guide insisted after facing over 30 questions, none of them came across as being as driven and engaged as we were.
Reflections on the Visit
Any self-respecting STS activity involves a moment of reflexivity and our excursion was no exception. Reflecting on the visit, we wondered about the degree of localization of the ASCR demo centre. Could it basically be located anywhere, given that we were only presented with representations of the developing site? Or would integration of the demo centre with the actual site might reinforce and enrich the demo function? City planners and STS scholars would stress the importance of context! (Felt, 2013) Perhaps the placelessness is meant to help emerging innovation seem ‘mobile’, potentially applicable anywhere, in the global field of interest of Siemens, energy companies and policy-makers.
Beaulieu, A. (2016). What are smart grids? Epistemology, interdisciplinarity and getting things done. In A. Beaulieu, J. de Wilde, & J. Scherpen (Eds.), Smart Grids from a Global Perspective: Bridging old and New Energy Systems. Springer.
Bherer, L., Gauthier, M., & Simard, L. (Eds.). (2017). The Professionalization of Public Participation (1 edition). New York, NY: Routledge.
Felt, U. (2013). Keeping Technologies Out: Sociotechnical imaginaries and the formation of Austrian national technopolitical identity. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/3079571/Keeping_Technologies_Out_Sociotechnical_imaginaries_and_the_formation_of_Austrian_national_technopolitical_identity
Hargreaves, T., Wilson, C., & Hauxwell-Baldwin, R. (2018). Learning to live in a smart home. Building Research & Information, 46(1), 127–139. https://doi.org/10.1080/09613218.2017.1286882
Rosental, C. (2013). Toward a Sociology of Public Demonstrations. Sociological Theory, 31(4), 343–365. https://doi.org/10.1177/0735275113513454
Szeman, I., & Group, P. R. (2016). After Oil. Edmonton, Alberta: Petrocultures Research Group.
On Friday 27 April, a memorial was held at Concordia University to honour the life and work of Abby Lippman. While I couldn’t attend, I did wear trainers on Friday, with a nod to what was her footwear staple, decades before this became fashionable. Trainers fit her life–Abby liked to run things. Important things. McGill published a short summary of her many achievements. Her leadership, her will to make a difference, can hardly be underestimated.
Abby gave me my first job as a research assistant at McGill in 1992, when I was just finishing my BA, and boy what an apprenticeship that turned out to be! She taught me so much about the entwinement of knowledge and power and the significance of feminism for women’s health. And about writing clearly! We stayed in touch for many years and she was always curious as to where my research was taking me. Such a driven, committed woman. I find it hard to do justice to just how much she taught me and to how deeply her example shaped me, as an academic. I will miss her, and whenever I do, will try to emulate her commitment to a better, fairer world.
The first race of the season!
In the run up to this event, I spent an hour or so in a great little cafe thinking through my goals for this race. The location was actually part of the exercize: Spaak is a newish cyclist hangout in Groningen. Henrieke Wijnsma, one of organisers of the Women on Wheels event I attended last May (the day I first saddled a racing bike and caught a glimmer of a possible cycling future) is the main figure at Spaak. So that place had warm fuzzy associations for me, even before I tasted their delicious coffee and baked goods.
Spaak is definitely a place for cyclists–really, your bike is also welcome inside the cafe–and I didn’t quite dare go there until a colleague from the philosophy department, whom I suspect never had an athletic thought in her life, took me there for coffee, this being conveniently close to her office. So, part of the exercize was to overcome my feeling of not really being athletic, of being an aspiring but somewhat hopeless candidate, of being at best a wannabee runner/swimmer/triathlete. Going to the ultimate place for sporty types was a step on the road to feeling legit about this tri-thing. Cultivating this feeling of legitimacy was connected to my goal for the zwemloop: not to be scared! Or, positively formulated as mantras should be:
During my Spaak session, I looked at my training and test runs/swims, my racing speeds at this event last year, and my tempo and ‘time in zones’ during my last race (4 Mijl), and came up with some indicative figures as to what I could expect to achieve on each part of the event, and which paces I would need to hit to achieve them. I made the goals very explicit and documented for myself why I thought they were doable. I also planned what the day of the run (late afternoon start) would ideally look like, in terms of fuel, rest and warm-up. So the Spaak session amounted to strong cognitive input, concrete planning and hard work on the emotional side of performance.
In the week before the race, I visualised how the day would go, prepared a check list, implemented Sal’s golden tip of elastic shoelaces, and practiced my transition a few times.
This combination of different kinds of preparation –my Spaak session, visualising, practicing–combined with some mantras in the run up to the race worked extremely well. I channeled any stress or apprehension into the phrase ‘I’m excited about this’, carving out an alternative groove to ‘I’m scared shitless but making myself do this anyway’, which is what has got me through events in the past. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the hard work during the event, I felt incredibly strong throughout, ending with a massively fast sprint. I ended the race more than 2 minutes below the time I was aiming for privately and more than 4 minutes below the time I had shared with others as my goal.
So it looks like I found a better use for all that energy that used to go into worrying.
Other noteworthy elements of the race were
It was also interesting to note that the things I was scared about in the past (throwing up, having to stop and walk, getting a DNF next to my name, looking like an out-of-shape middle aged woman with silly pretensions, ending the race at a snail’s pace) also came up in the course of the event. But I was able to simply consider them very briefly and think ‘maybe this will happen, we’ll just see’ or ‘ that might happen, but it’s not happening now–right now I feel great and am running 10 seconds under my goal pace without any pain’. Somehow, these fears were there but didn’t get any traction on me last Sunday. That was certainly the most delicious outcome of that day and I’ve been on a high since.
(A cherry on the sundae was scoring in a friendly water-polo match against an all-male team on Monday night .)
Perhaps it was a one-off, and there was some happy, lucky combination of factors that made me perform to this level. But the new fearless groove, that feels real and robust. I want to visit that again.
In April, I will start a new project at the CWTS, the centre for science and technology studies at Leiden University. It will focus on increasing the impact of the work of the centre and the project will run for the rest of 2018.
I will write more about the objectives of the project in the coming days. These will further build on existing outcomes from research and evaluation activities, and optimize their impact with existing and new stakeholders. Concretely, this will mean starting up several activities, shorter and longer term initiatives, and variously involving individual researchers or the entire institute.
Among other activities, I will set up
The project will start with a kick-off seminar on Thursday 19 April. This will be the occasion to explain existing plans for the project and to brainstorm about additional activities that would help the CWTS’ work have more impact, in more ways.
Can’t wait to get started on this exciting mix and putting my energy and talent to work in Leiden: creating new connections, stimulating people to develop new aspects of their work and enhancing capabilities in this great group.