IV. Fieldwork in the Professions

BALANCING THEORETICAL AUTONOMY AND PRACTICAL ENGAGEMENT

Introduction

Field philosophy, as described in this volume, is case-based and directed at influencing a practice or a product. The ideal is to move closer to the action, to be more interventionist, and to closely collaborate with stakeholders and colleagues from different disciplinary backgrounds. Rather than shunning the hustle and bustle of the streets and markets by retreating into the calmness of one’s study— as the traditional philosopher tends to do—field philosophy returns to its Socratic roots, being a form of argumentative and reflective engagement of the philosopher with her fellow citizens. The field philosopher thus gives up her position as a professional outsider who offers theoretical critique and reflection to those within the practice. In a sense, she aims to become a practitioner among practitioners, collaborating with the other stakeholders on a collective product.

The two authors of this chapter both have a background in the philosophy of technology, especially in the ethics and politics of new and emerging technologies. We are both working on normative and political issues regarding how cities nowadays increasingly use digital technologies to enhance the quality of their processes and services. The fashionable label for these experiments is ‘Smart City.’ This refers to a vision of the future city as one in which ubiquitous data-processing technologies finely tune flows of people, products, traffic, communication, and sendees. Critics have pointed out that this vision tends to be technocratic in orientation (Greenfield 2013; Kitchin 2014; Townsend 2014). Focusing on efficiency, health, sustainability, mobility, and security, the smart city seems to be more ‘for’ than ‘by’ the people. How can we ensure that smart cities are democratic, in the sense that citizens participate as political equals in collective decisions? Ideally, an answer to that question would have to be developed together with the citizens themselves.

We were therefore ver)' excited when an opportunity arose to do field philosophy at the site of a Dutch energy network operator called Current in 2015-2016.[1] As a semi-public company with an obligation to guarantee affordable, accessible, and reliable transport and energy distribution, Current boasts a well-developed sense of corporate responsibility. Presently, the company is faced with the daunting task of managing the transition toward a sustainable energy system. Experts anticipate a transition from centralized electricity provision toward locally generated and distributed electricity. Through new technologies, such as solar cells, consumers of electricity will also become producers, thus evolving into ‘prosumers.’ The increasing number of (smaller) energy producers and less-predictable energy sources (e.g., solar and wind power) make the whole system much more dynamic and complicated to manage. Without going into technical detail here, it suffices to say that the company is at the forefront of developing digital technologies that will enable this transition. This makes Current one of the key players in the Dutch smart city context.

The strategic director of Current was keenly aware that the digitalization that the company was pursuing to facilitate the energy transition could easily backfire. Digital technologies that would help manage the increasingly dynamic demands on the electricity grid require that the company has access to real-time data about how citizens use electricity. Only then can the stability of the grid be guaranteed. However, the data requested from citizens can be sensitive, raising privacy concerns. There is a risk that citizens will experience their energy network operator as ‘Big Brother’ spying on them. The strategic director was therefore looking for normative guidelines and good practices that could provide the democratic legitimacy necessary for a successful energy transition. Moreover, she observed that, at the time, Dutch society lacked a vocabulary to identify and discuss the democratic challenges posed by digital technologies.

This is where we came in. After consulting with Current, we developed a field philosophical project to address the issue of the democratic underrepresentation of citizens in shaping and controlling their increasingly digital environment. In doing so, we would help tackle the issue of democratic legitimacy for the digital technologies that Current needed. Our plan was to develop an ethical framework to facilitate long-term equal stakeholdership in smart cities. We would not do this from behind our writing desks, but in close dialogue with the stakeholders: policymakers, technology' developers, and citizens. Furthermore, we sought collaboration with two social scientists to help ensure that our philosophical proposals would remain firmly grounded in the complex socio-technical environment that we aimed to affect. Finally, we secured funding for three years from Current and from the Responsible Research and Innovation program of the Dutch Science Foundation.

Our research started from the interests of a non-philosophic audience. We, in turn, looked forward to collaborating with technical innovators to develop approaches or tools to address some of the democratic concerns that digital technologies raised in the context of the smart city. However, the move from armchair to street came with considerable challenges and unavoidable value trade-offs. During the whole project we struggled with our role, particularly with finding a balance between theoretical distance and practical engagement, and between pursuing our own normative agenda and taking a more disinterested stance in order to be part of the team.

In this chapter we reflect on our experiences by describing two experiments that we conducted in the course of this project. In the first experiment we attempted to contribute to a start-up initiative by positioning ourselves as mediators between the developers of a digital platform and its stakeholders. We will describe two obstacles that eventually made us change course. In the second experiment we opted for the more traditional philosophical role of developing theoretical tools for the practitioners. This role came with its own challenges. In the conclusion we summarize our findings and distinguish three different roles for the field philosopher on a continuum constituted by the extent to which the philosopher is bound by contributing to a collective outcome.

Failures do not always receive the attention they deserve. It is often mandatory, for academic, economic, social, and/or political reasons, to report success. That is unfortunate, because it is exactly these failures that invite reflection on how the embedded position of the field philosopher affects the content and form of her philosophizing. We hope that a frank discussion of failure enables a learning process regarding some ‘dos and don’ts’ of field philosophy.

 
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