Bianca Wylie and Jutta Treviranus on housing and homelessness!
Hello and welcome to the 17th episode of Quantization!
Kaveh: In this episode, we have Jutta Treviranus, the Director of the Inclusive Design Research Center at OCAD University, and Bianca Wylie, the co-founder of Tech Reset Canada for the second conversation on housing, living places and homelessness.
At the beginning of the previous episode, the fungi network, we announced that Jutta and Bianca’s conversation comes in two parts. Now, we want to let you know there is a third episode, Hybrid Life, which comes shortly after this one.
Kaveh: This is episode 17; volume 14th of signal, Salvage or Demolish
Arezoo: Hello Jutta and Bianca, Thanks for returning to the virtual studio once again.
Arezoo: In the previous episode, which was the first part of your conversation on housing and homelessness, you talked about governmental policies, democracy and civil rights, and organizations and institutions. What was the role of each of these players in making the issue worse or better, and also what they may or can do in the future? Our initial idea was to produce this topic in two parts. But later on, we decided to go to the third section, which will be uploaded right after this one. I think it’s a good idea to focus more on the issue of housing, but later on, I have another question, more related to the time we are living right now during the COVID pandemic and the post-COVID life. Jutta, could you start the conversation, please?
Jutta: Thank you, Bianca, for coming again, it’s wonderful to have this opportunity to continue our conversation. I’ve been noodling all sorts of ideas that came up in our last discussion. One of the ideas that you brought up is this notion of salvage, and how there are certain things that we need to preserve, and it relates to the opportunity for self-critique, to not be defensive about certain ideas at the same time as you’re evolving them, or recognizing what the mistakes and failures were in those ideas. And this time, or this conversation, it would be great to take those and use them to think about homelessness, place, home displacement, all of the issues that these two podcasts are intended to be about. And I wonder whether there are things that you’ve been thinking about in the interim between these two conversations?
Bianca: Yeah, there have been, and thank you for the opportunity to continue the conversation. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and I’m glad you’ve pulled out a couple of the themes, the salvage piece, and the critique, and the self critique, and the space to talk about those. I was at a meeting this week that’s actually quite relevant to this conversation, and it was hosted by Friends of Chinatown, and in Toronto it’s an interesting example because I, many years ago, lived quite briefly in an apartment on Spadina, and interesting to think about how growth densification, growth pressures, real estate pressures, are now manifesting in Chinatown in Toronto. So this was a community meeting, really great turnout, I think there’s like 160 people shown up to an online discussion about what to do, how to preserve, how to defend against the pressures that would be displacing communities within Chinatown.
Bianca: And just a few things to pull out of that. I think one of the really interesting mechanisms that seems to be… you know what, I’d be curious to know how much you’ve thought and heard about land trusts in all of your time looking at housing. But there’s one of the pieces of the discussion was to be thinking about what a community land trust might look like, and I’m saying we’re at a very, very early thing here, and I don’t want to retell the story in any way that gets it wrong. But bottom line is, I live in Parkdale now, and there’s a community land trust group in Parkdale, and there was discussion of this mechanism around, how might it be possible to use a land trust to define, use, to protect values, to make sure that people can afford to live there, and all of that. And all of that brings with it a lot of conversations about self-governance, but also this really interesting tension with this moment with land back, and doing work to honor issues related to land and ownership and property.
Bianca: So this was just one of those examples where I think there’s just so many things going on at once in this moment, and how many different conversations you need to hold and think about concurrently to try to address issues related to displacement place, history, mechanisms, governance, and the long arc of history, and the more recent arc, and urban planning. So I’ll stop for a minute, but I just wanted to offer that up because I can tell you more about the meeting, it was fantastic to listen to and to see it, but it also requires some of the, there was such a lovely moment of honesty within the group when someone’s like, how do I get involved in this? And this awareness of, well here’s a group of people who have been working on this for awhile, there’s also a need to center those who are racialized and also part of the community of the place, but also an interest in an openness to work across the city and with others.
Bianca: And being able to have those conversations in a group like that, and just have everybody see and hold each other accountable that yes, that makes sense, there has to be some sense of how this is constructed in order for it to go forward and serve everyone, is beautiful to see. And I see that happening better within community than I do within government, for example. Governments don’t know how to be honest like that, about how they’re dealing with difficult issues, not to say that one is necessarily difficult, but just something that doesn’t have that answer that’s clean and precise and here’s how we are going to go. So I’ll stop, just thought it was a really nice, very real example of these issues coming to land, so to speak, in Toronto right now. And I don’t know if any of that promotes or prompts some thoughts from you, but it’d be a fun one to-
Jutta: Oh, definitely. Yeah, I like the fact that you’re bringing up Chinatown. I lived in Kensington Market, and then on Brunswick Avenue. And I don’t know if you’ve seen there’s this novel that everyone at some point has lived on Brunswick Avenue. But I watched the change over the many decades of that area, and the various senses of neighborhood and community, and that much of what you’ve said has prompted this. There was quite a debate in that neighborhood at the time where there was a hospital at the foot of Brunswick and Spadina, and a huge community debate about the closing of the hospital, because it was the only multi-lingual hospital where there were doctors and nurses and medical practitioners that could speak multiple languages. And having participated in those neighborhood debates about the closing of the hospital and the advocacy to not have it closed, because it was a crux, or a very, very important part of the neighborhood, was this debate about who has voice in this neighborhood community decision.
Jutta: And of course the voice is given to the people that currently own property there, it’s not to the people that just happen to be living there, or the people that were previously living there, or that are parts of the neighborhood that don’t have that current cachet of ownership at the moment. And of course the result was that this hospital was closed, a developer purchased it and built condos there. But that has made me think about, how can we create structures that are not these singular ownership entities, that are the ticket to participating in the planning, in the decision-making, a construct that is larger than a single property and the collective set of property owners, and that goes to the community, the neighborhood? Because community and neighborhood is a much richer, more potentially resilient thing than the disaggregated sets of pieces of property that someone currently has claimed to.
Jutta: So I like this notion of a land trust, or something that gives voice to more than a collection of owners of property, or taxpayers within an area. The people that add color, that add richness to it, that help to construct a community or a neighborhood, go well beyond the property owners within that. And that of course then gets to cities, and how we construct cities, how we do our urban planning, who has a say there. So I’d love to hear more about your thoughts of land trusts and other ways of enabling greater participation in the discussion of what ARE neighborhoods, what ARE communities, and what are their needs.
Bianca: Yeah, and this idea of how you expand who has voice, or who is listened to, because I think that’s one of those ones where you hear, everybody has a voice, it’s who’s actively not listened to. It’s also interesting to think about the dynamics of things like, this came up in this meeting as well, the BIA, the business improvement area, as being one of the stakeholders that can be represented as, yes, this is from the community, or yes, this is this, but then it’s also representing a very set of interests in terms of the broader community.
Bianca: And I think that, when you get into these structural pieces of how you decide who you consult with when you have a conversation in a neighborhood, and how they’re represented, there’s so many of these sub categories that I think are problematic, because they’re not expensive and they always tie back to, and I think this was why it was so great how this surfaced in this discussion, was private property really being, and then to your point, ownership of said property, really being at the root when we talk about radical approaches to different things, getting to the root of that as something that does cause issue when we’re trying to get more equity in, in how we think about managing shared resources.
Bianca: And I think the thing that I find fascinating about things where you have conversations about, say a land trust, where you can start to think about use and longer-term use and commitments you can make that are a better approach to peer play private property ownership, but then also still our intention with issues where you can say, “Well, if that land isn’t even rightfully owned by settlers, say, you’re still not exactly there.” So there’s that tension in there, but then there’s also, I think, a tension which goes back to our first conversation, and I don’t know how often you’ve experienced this, but I kind of mentioned it, this idea that you still need to have some order, and some sense of authority and power in management and accountability when you are doing more self-governance.
Bianca: And I would say that’s an area that I feel as though we have very little capacity in a lot of community, and it’s a very underfunded type of labor, and that in some cases it’s good that it’s underfunded because it’s important, I think, to keep some of our work out of models that are commercial or relate to any kind of capital. But then at the same time, you see that we do need to have those conversations, and how are they had outside of, or adjacent to, or expansively to the ones that the city runs in terms of a housing, or homelessness, or shelter location. That list goes on in terms of how the city’s consultations look for any of these issues. So I think there’s opportunity, but there’s also a lot of risk there because if there isn’t that muscle to do better self-governance, you can see that it becomes harder and harder to invite people into it, because then it’s just like, okay, well who’s in charge, how do we get there?
Bianca: It’s like, how do we manage all of this together? And I think we’re really out of practice on that front, really, really out of practice. And that may even go back to some of the conversations about, how long out of practice are we on that? I mean, is that since colonial time out of practice? You can take that lack of practice of doing self-governance, at least in Canada, I think, back a pretty long time. So I’m curious if you have any examples that come to mind of, I know last time we talked about small projects, or small ideas where you think that this is going better. We can also talk a bit more about the city piece of it, but I want to stop there and just wonder if, getting to that problem, if you agree that you think there’s a problem there, and if you see places where you’ve seen it actually work pretty well. Because I’ve actually seen a lot of failure when I see groups come together and try to pull something off together, I’ve seen a lot of failure.
Jutta: Yeah, and this is something I’ve been thinking a great deal about, and not just now, but historically as well. I actually grew up in a rural community, which was fairly xenophobic, but had a very tight reciprocal structure that there was this implicit organization and things got done and people supported each other. And certainly in times of crisis, a snow storm or whatever, there was a pulling together of the community that, while there were issues with how outsiders were treated, at a deeper level there was still an underlying social infrastructure that kept everybody safe and made sure that everyone was cared for, even if you weren’t necessarily there as part of the community.
Jutta: And having moved to the city, I still see that there are these types of networks that emerge and then disappear, in some cases strengthened and then leave. I think those more fluid structures are actually a good thing, because when the order gets too entrenched, it can’t evolve, and it becomes so brittle, and you have so many friction points. So I like the fact that you’re talking about that order not being well-funded, because of course, funding usually comes with specific compromises, and it comes with a variety of requirements related to it, and beholding us to a higher authority.
Jutta: So one of the areas that I’ve been looking at is how do we use reciprocity, or the earlier ideas of insurance as a way of holding a community, or a network of people together. The idea that what I contribute now, someone will contribute to me when I need it, so that it’s not a hierarchical power structure, but just reciprocity between people who recognize that, I have something now you, you don’t, I may be in a position where I need something the next time, so I’m going to pay it forward. And a lot of this has been trivialized and made seem very Pollyanna-ish, but I think there is a call to this coming, again, in these little tiny grace notes during the pandemic. I’m noticing it certainly in my neighborhood where there we have a community list, and before COVID, there was a lot of fear of security, and started to go in directions that I really didn’t like. But since the pandemic, there’s a lot of neighbor helping neighbor, and then extending that concern once we know that we’re safe and well cared for beyond the immediate neighborhood.
Jutta: And I’m watching this organic growth of a network where reciprocity and the thought that, I may be safe now, but I won’t be safe at another time, and it would be great to grow something that can take care of me when I feel not safe. But these are all very precarious networks, and I think there is a value in that fragility. I think the fragileness allows for greater evolution, and I’m not sure I want it to ossify, or become more rigid or structured, or well supported, or whatever, because that of course has costs as well. It’ll be less welcoming of change, in situation or people that are members. But I love your sense.
Bianca: Yeah. I mean, I’m so glad you think about it that way, because I think that kind of flexibility and that, make sure you don’t let these things ossify, that you create a structure and then it has a funding stream, and it’s like a forever governance sort of thing. Does instantiate power in ways that then it gets really difficult to move. But I think one of the tensions with this, and I think the mutual aid and some of these things that have just been tradition and tradition, tradition for so long within communities, where the state has just been a failure since step one for so many parts of people’s lives, it does bring me back to that idea of, how do you split the labor between the mutual aid and the supporting and the informal and the community peer play community work.
Bianca: And then this other piece where it’s, I was talking to a friend the other day about how amazing our brains are as protective mechanisms from the amount of violence that we’re all aware of. Just how much violence we have to be able to suspend attention toward in order just to function. And when I think about that, even some different, when I think about, I’ll give you my example related to housing here.
Bianca: The fact that so many, predominantly women, women and children who are unable to leave a situation of intimate partner violence, because there isn’t a place for them to go, in terms of a failure that is a known failure, a described failure, a listed failure, that is one of those ones where as soon as I even just think about it for a minute, I’m just like, how morally bankrupt has the state and the institutions that track this kind of thing. And I know we know this, I’m not saying anything we don’t know, but what I’m saying is, when I moved from that awareness to what it means for me and others, when I think, well, is there private property I have that I could contribute into this problem? Should I be saying, would somebody be able to come into my home, that I don’t know very well, but at this point in time, isn’t this where we should be? Should we be thinking, how do we reorganize the ways that we do hold property?
Bianca: And interestingly, to me, this leads to what is not intuitive, but has come up in my understanding of city planning and using vacant properties, is insurance, and how we’ve got all these mechanisms to protect private property, but we haven’t evolved those mechanisms to create space for more flexibility, because when you said insurance, this is just so interesting to me is that, there are mechanisms that we should be designing to address the opportunity to share private properties better, but also are honest about the fact that there are risks inherent in doing that.
Bianca: And I think that those risks have to be taken seriously, and creative mechanisms to address them have to be taken seriously. Because I understand why people aren’t just throwing their doors open and being like, “Hey, you need a place to stay, come on in.” Of course that’s a limited number of people within each of our communities that I think we’d be comfortable with. But on the other hand, this is just, it’s like food waste. It’s like these things where you’re like, well all we’re doing is failing to figure out how to create alternative, not just governance, but actually mechanisms, again, is the private property a good thing? I don’t think so, at this point in time, I feel pretty confident saying this is a problem, big problem, old problem, go back to England problem, long, long, long problem.
Bianca: But at the same time, we then need to be more creative about what to do with it so long as it’s here tomorrow morning. And so I think that example for me is one that I feel uncomfortable with my lack of activity toward the work there. And how should I take that issue that I know about, you know about, I’d say we all know about it. Aside from saying, we need shelters and affordable housing and public housing, and all of those things cooperative, all of that, yes, we need that supply, but until it’s there, what else are we doing with what we have? Like how are we reorganizing what we have differently? And that feels like we’re not really working there enough.
Bianca: And I’m sure there are people working there that I don’t know of their work, and there’s probably a long track of work, I’m not going to assume it’s not happening, but I also think there may need to be a way to engage different people in that work that come at it from that different angle. What’s a new insurance product you could create to open up space so that there would be comfort in those who own the space to do something else with it.
Bianca: Because I think, I’ll end on this note, when I look at the city getting in trouble for not letting people sleep in small constructions that are been designed to say, “Hey, at least here’s some shelter,” I’m going to guess there are staff who really want that to be okay, and then there’s also the city’s a corporation with the criminal liability problem if someone dies. And I just don’t think we’re talking enough about that specific problem. We’re talking about it like, oh, the city’s bad, and the people coming up with these things are good, and then we just kind of walk away. And I think that’s a very juvenile understanding of our city. So I’ll stop, I’ll stop at that point. There’s lots of different tracks in there, curious which of them provoke a thought from you, Jutta?
Jutta: Yeah, so housing scarcity and the wasted space that could be housing, the haves, the have nots in terms of places to live and feel safe. Yeah, I mean, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that as well. It’s interesting to see what happened in the rust belt, and the brown spaces, and how within the private sector, or even with the NGO sector, those not individual housing, but business housing efforts took place just South of the border. I know of many people where the opportunity for that arose because of the closing of many of those factories and the status of the communities there in terms of poverty and need, such amazing creative uses of those brown spaces happened. It was the disruption caused by the crisis that then loosened a lot of the restrictions that were within the regulatory processes or the entrenched laws. Is there an equivalent process that might happen in terms of private space or space for individuals, rather than businesses? Certainly here in Toronto, we see things like the laneway housing and those things, but those have been gentrified as well. They seem to be the opportunity to create very high-cost rental spaces in your backyard, so that hasn’t worked very well. The loosening or the not looking at all of the basement housing that is happening in places where it’s not actually zoned for rental, I think to some extent, is a way of judiciously ignoring the building code or the housing code that we have within the city. But there isn’t anything or that I’m aware of that is taking on the enormity of this, the many people that don’t have adequate housing, and COVID is bringing it to the fore even more.
Jutta: You were talking about the labor that goes into anything that is organized informally, or that grows organically without support from the city or without formal support from levels of government. One of the things that I’ve been trying to think about is what would be an infrastructure that could be provided by the government that would be sufficiently flexible, would be governed bottom-up, would not impose things that aren’t supportive of the diversity of needs that is there and the different contexts and that would also allow, or to give some protection to the potential violences that happen when we sequester. There are so many tensions here, right?
Jutta: There’s the formalization that happens when there is top-down support and the need to be much more flexible and fluid. There is the demand for privacy, and yet that as well it becomes this closing off where things can happen that are not safe to certain parties within that sequestered private unit. So how do we achieve a balance and between those tensions?
Jutta: That gets back to I mean the original ideas that I was talking about, this idea of how do we make decisions? How do we plan? How do we make choices? And that we still seem to be wed to the notion that it needs to be either a binary choice, or it needs to be a single homogenous structure that we create. Generally, we seem not to be able to hold a plurality of possibilities-
Jutta: … or a set of choices, a spectrum of ideas. The decision has to be one or the other, or it has to be some sort of more rigid structure. So how do we create decision tools that support fluidity, there are variability difference and complexity, especially in urban planning where that’s such a critical need?
Bianca: Yeah. And I think urban planning is such a good example of one where the idea of process, like linear process and this is a thing, this is the type of plan, this is how we go out, this is how we talk to people, this is where we bring it back, is one where that kind of rigidity is it creates comfort for the planning profession. It’s, like, give me my set of rules. I will follow the rules. If there’s a problem, you point to the rules and you say to somebody, “If you don’t like the rules, here’s who you go talk to about the rules.” When that regime is as old and as problematic as it is, trying to get into the conversations about how do we update how urban planning worked, how do we rethink city planning, City of Toronto, it’s overwhelming. It’s overwhelming in how it gets into things like access to transportation, for example, how immediately you intersect with another piece of planning. Then it’s like, well, which one is centered? What is the thing that is centered?
Bianca: There was this brilliant quote, there’s a really good report from that on, I should bring it up, that was done in relation to the Friends of Chinatown undertaking right now, and it’s sort of looking at it and it’s a study. In this study, there’s a quote about how heritage is the people. Heritage is the people of a neighborhood. Heritage is not the build form. It’s the people. And I think this idea of centering people and how they exist in place as such an important thing, when you hold that up as an idea against any of the current standards, it doesn’t make sense.
Bianca: So it might be an interesting thing to sort of reverse engineer what would it look like to do an area study that centered people and what they were doing? How do you start to try to adapt preexisting ways of planning and design to center people? I think this is what good work looks like that’s coming out of these neighborhood-level projects. Before we wrap up, I will make sure I pull up this thing because I want to give attribution and point people to this report that was done for Chinatown. It’s fantastic.
Bianca: The other piece of this that I think about is how you try to create that kind of infrastructure for different governance and different decision-making and how that might really as a hyper-local exercise be the way that it makes the most sense because I often think when you go down to a neighborhood level, you can have the conversations that people can follow along. It’s like, okay, those two houses have been sitting there vacant for how long, like six months, so what’s going on with those two? Who’s on that project? Let’s go find that out. Here’s the thing, here’s the school. Any part of the school not being used, is there alternative way? Can it be used in a different way? I think we do have to come down to the hyper-local level so that our brains can get around what alternative usage of property might look like because then I think it’s very intuitive to understand.
Bianca: That’s why I like community meetings. Suddenly the risk of someone’s child getting asthma from a train that they think has too much diesel exhaust becomes, like, okay, I can feel that now. If I read it, maybe I wouldn’t get it as much. But when I look across the table to someone, even if I think that that’s not a concern, it suddenly becomes something I have to be able to at least speak to when I put forward my idea.
Bianca: I say this because I think when you just touched very early on about scale, I think I have this really questionable relationship with scale where a lot of the work has to be done very small, but it does feel as though the infrastructure that might enable more of that work to be done better should be something that could be scaled, or at least made available. And I think we’ve seen that in the pandemic. I’ve seen amazing Google Docs shared that are about like Mutual Aid Pods, and they just really lay out, like, here’s the thing, you set up this person, this is the person you call, these are the things we need, this is how we’re going to do it. We need to move from, and a lot of the work, I think, to resolve these problems conceptual to implementation and operations.
Bianca: Just because I’m constantly on this, like last 40 years train, which I like to bring up, like, what are some of our problems over the last 40 years, I will say that one of the trends that concerns me greatly is a lack of operational capacity in the state. When it’s gone in the state, it’s really hard to find how it… You almost then rely on operational capacity to come from people from their work life or their family life or their whatever. I do think we are in a time where ideas and concepts seem to be and there’s an economy around the ideas and less of an economy around the do the thing, the implementation and the operations. So I think we need to focus on implementation and operations for governance, because I know enough people who really like the Elinor Ostrom, Sheila Foster work around commons and cities, but also enough people who’ve been in the rooms with people trying to work it out and say, “Oh, it’s not as easy as it sounds,” and the how to do that kind of alternative ownership discussion.
Bianca: You actually need more guidance than you might think you need, then you need more case studies of how do you actually pull that off well. It’s not going to be the same everywhere, but there should be some things that are shareable, I would think.
Jutta: Yeah, and this gets to all sorts of other topics, like the forms of democracy that are there, and it reaches out to experimentations like quadratic voting and fluid democracy. Those are the types of structures that I think or the type of infrastructure that I’ve been thinking about or to extend our notion of what is infrastructure beyond the solid to the governance and infrastructure and re-imagining some of the underlying just processes that we use for decision-making and planning and moving forward.
Jutta: One of the things that I’ve been trying to encourage some of the planning groups that I’m involved in to do is frequently… I mean we were involved with the sidewalk debacle and there, the primary information about what the planning was were these sales tactics of this is the ideal. The pictures that we saw and the plans that we saw were all about the idyllic average user experience, as opposed to, well, let’s look at the more difficult, marginalized, potentially crisis-ridden examples of the uses of this space. What is not the best case scenario, but what’s the worst case scenario and how will our plan work within that situation? What happens if we have a huge group of people that are not your average person that you show the pretty pictures of here within this? I don’t mean to, but to take or to use sidewalk only, and it’s happening everywhere. I mean, every architect’s rendering is always about the idyllic. So let’s plan in such a way that it’s not the idyllic, it’s the unexpected, the people that have difficulty or can’t use the current space.
Jutta: The resiliency of any informal planning structure or even formal planning structure depends on rethinking how we plan. And, of course, there there’s a tension as well, that you have to create some optimism while also taking into account the fact that these are the things that could go wrong. I think much of democracy research decision-making of any sort is currently askew at the moment and isn’t prepared for the complexity and the entanglement and the vicious cycles that are there.
Bianca: Yeah, it’s not. And I think all of this is interesting when you add in the technology element, too, because one of the reasons that some urban planners are excited by things like technology is that they would let you… I’m not a virtual reality person, but the idea that you can put, I say that in terms of the amount of time I spent using it or knowing about it, but the idea that you could help people picture like 35 different versions of what a building or a park or a parkette or a thing like could look like, that the ease with which that is done is higher than having to do maybe individual rendering for every single thing. There’s something in the computation that allows you to have many different things that are produced more quickly.
Bianca: But then you get into like, yeah, but from what starting point? There’s a word for this term and I can’t remember what it is, but it’s like everything kind of coming to the same thing. There’s a problem that even though there’s a diversity of things, they are all still within such a narrow frame that it’s actually not really diversity. There’s something around homogeneity. There’s a woman named Wendy-something, it’s slipping my mind, but really interesting because it’s so much about algorithmic and computational iterations that they just go like this and bring in to one point, but say that they’re expanding the number of things you’re looking at, which I find that’s one of those interesting two-things-at-the-same-time problem.
Bianca: But the point to me is that if artists and others can help us use technologies to actually do that in a way that really does leverage the opportunity to show different ideas and do it but without falling into the trap of how I would say it’s being commercialized at the moment, I think is interesting. Because I do think we struggle with things when they’re abstract, and I do think we struggle with things when they’re not tangible and grounded in the place we’re in and the reality we know and how the thing that’s not there will match or not match the things that are there already.
Bianca: Yeah, I wonder about technology’s role in urban planning because I see it both increasing and also being put into private, again, back to the idea of private property, that some of the things that were issues, if we talk about public space and technology and use and surveillance and a lot of the issues that come with how can you feel safe in a space, are being skipped over and some of the technology is just being moved right into private spaces, like surveillance technologies being designed right into public housing, so that you can’t even opt out of it. Every unit is now set up and it’s got a digital infrastructure component. We’re not going to talk about that, but it’s not one of those things that’s on the table for a resident who might be applying to be in a space.
Bianca: So I bring that up because when you were talking and when I think about the City of Toronto as an example and the scale, and I think people forget how big the city is sometimes. I mean, you might know the fact that it’s the fourth largest in North America, but it is a big place in the way that there’s a lot going on in the city, instead of, and this is my same issue with government, some of the, what I would call, problematic technology is being accelerated in some of the housing and shelter. In the pandemic, we’re going to have this janky, like we’re going to measure your temperature, all these things where it’s like that’s not even a real thing and now this is how we’re spending money. So I think how coronavirus is accelerating some of the property technology and other things that are problematic is bad.
Bianca: Then as a technologist, the part where I get bothered is I remember how bad it was for the way… The technology being used to manage the affordable housing waiting list in Toronto. I haven’t done a lap on that for a while, but it was brutal, like brutal. You could only use some version of Internet Explorer for a while. This was like really bad, really, really bad and, for me, it’s the failure to apply where technology can be helpful in administrative function. If you have a whole bunch of properties and there is no one in them, and there may be ways to try to accelerate the matching or the showing or the availability, I think that’s what bothers me a lot with governments and, say, planning departments or housing authorities, not using the technology in ways to actually address some of the really known and really bad problems and instead are accelerating the kind of stuff that is really troubling.
Bianca: So I’m constantly saying about governments and authorities, just get up to like late ’90s, early 2000s proficiency with your technologies, and you will both accomplish a lot and avoid a lot of trouble. Not that they’re perfect. We’ve had problematic technologies, like IBM being a really great since the 1960s problematic use of technologies even before then, but it’s not to say there’s any version of administrative technology that’s great. But I am saying you could use it in ways that is different than the way I see it coming out now. And that sort of idea of matching need even within mutual aid, too, like matching needs and using technology to help people find stuff that they need, we undervalue that one, and that one’s huge. That’s one of the things I love about the internet is you can wave your little flag and someone might see you and have a thing for you.
Bianca: I think that’s an interesting thing when we think about governance and sharing resources and assets and the digital time that we’re in. I think that’s interesting. It’s like we’re not leveraging what could be quite useful and we’re going wild fast on stuff that we know some of it should be an abolition category, like don’t, like no. So I don’t know if where you see those intersections in your work, but I know they are all there in stuff you’re working on.
Jutta: Yeah, most definitely. And, of course, my biggest concern has always been, I mean since the ’80s and ’90s is the vicious cycles within technology, the way in which technology amplifies, automates and just expands the inequities that are there. If I’m not participating in the technology, my information doesn’t go into the design of the technology. If I don’t buy technology, my vote regarding which technology should receive priority doesn’t go into it. It’s just the data systems like artificial intelligence is just expanding and amplifying and automating all of that. So if I’m on the wrong end of that cycle, then it piles up, and it just continues to expand.
Jutta: I think at the heart of that is it’s pre-technology or pre what we currently think is technology. It’s actually statistics and quantified research methods, and the way that we make decisions, the way that we determine what is evidence. So if I’m someone that has not participated in that, I will not be able to participate because the system will not be built for me to participate so it reinforces whatever inequities are there. So how does someone that is experiencing homelessness right now participate in any of… There are so many impediments to actually… It isn’t just do I have bandwidth? Do I have a digital system that will allow me to contribute? It goes even further back than that. Everything within the technology will be designed without you and designed in such a way that is harder and designed in such a way that you’re not important or prioritized.
Jutta: I’ve always, or I started out in this field as a techno optimist, seeing the potential of technology to address some of these inequities. But instead what has happened is that it simply exacerbated and amplified them. And you’re right. There is this opportunity to connect and the opportunity to especially connect one group at the margins with another group at the margins, but that having been monetized takes that away as well.
Jutta: The early thoughts of what we could do with a network that connected people has gone down the wrong road. It’s definitely gone sideways.
Bianca: A hundred percent. But I think that when we get into this sort of salvage mode of thinking, I think one of the things that I’ve really struggled with communicating is the idea that we could be writing from a civic and public perspective the requirements for technology, and in this moment, we particularly have an opportunity to say like, hey, coming out of this, there’s public funding, there’s procurement is a big way to build things differently and states can set the rules.
Bianca: I think the problem to-date has been that there has been no incentive for governments. They’ve basically merged with the private sector because if it’s in commercial interest, then it’s in government interest and then it takes off. I think, at this point, building the confidence and the capacity in some of these administrative… There’s a lot here about administrative justice that feels like it’s opportune. Is it possible that I think we look at some of the actors, actors, bad word, but the library, the people who work in shelter support systems and everything else, that they become the ones defining the requirements for these systems, and there’s a really interesting intersection with labor.
Bianca: I don’t know if you remember this case that happened in Ontario, but it actually ended up that there was a grievance filed through a union for a software product that people who worked in social work in Ontario had to use. They were given a product and the effect of the data collection that they had to do and how it affected their job in terms of going to a visit, having to log data and the way it changed the dynamic of how they did their work was so problematic for some of the people that did that work, that they actually filed a grievance. I thought that was such a powerful story, because I think this is this moment where labor defining how these tools work to do the work that needs to get done, we have to have faith in the people that are in those roles to redefine this course of technology, to have a non-commercial civic track.
Bianca: Not all of it has to be like that, but if it’s state money, there has to be more of it that like, I think union power being something that gets pushed into procurement and these tools that are used for people in my long-term care home, or in the hospital I work in, or in the school I teach at, I’m going to say how they work. I’m going to do that through my union. I think there’s a really interesting surface there in this moment, because it’s different than classical labor organizing I would say.
Bianca: It’s beyond dental and health and salary. It’s actually like, “No. We’re going to take control over how these things are affecting our society.” I think that’s actually really … But it’s hard because in my experience, it’s hard to make that the priority. When I say where I’ve struggled with communicating, I think it’s really challenging to go from here to be like, “Hi, I know you have no time. Can you please add this whole new tangent of work into your union?” For example.
Bianca: That feels really like a difficult request to make, right? But it doesn’t mean that the opportunity is not there. I think when we think about history, one of the things that has fascinated me is how computer science was only ever basically commercial through the universities and everything else. There really hasn’t been much thought about non-commercial technology as a driving force within the university.
Bianca: It’s not that it’s zero, but it’s certainly not anywhere near even a sizable minority of funding and of attention. I wonder, what do you think about that? Because you, I would say, are an exception to that rule and the work that you’ve done. Do you think that that is a little naive to think that there’s room for that whole thing there? Because everything when I think of something, I know it’s already been thought of 20 times.
Bianca: I’m just curious where that exists in history or how it might intersect with something you’ve seen.
Jutta: Well, yeah, so that is the notion behind open source, right? The open source movement and the battles to maintain open licensing of computer infrastructure, but also the open standards. Using a format that is portable, that can’t be locked up. It’s the story of the internet. It’s the story of all of the open source software systems that quickly got closed off. The initial optimism about what could happen with technology had its roots in that notion. That here was a shared set of tools that were not locked up with private licensing and patents, et cetera.
Jutta: The Software Freedom Law Society, all of the efforts there. I think it’s time to reanimate those. I think one of the impediments though, is you were talking about the social workers or the individuals that are using the tools that operationalize our society. Our reward systems are completely upside down, right? I mean, they are in a position where they are just struggling to survive, so where do you have the additional resources, personal resources to contribute to such a collective effort?
Jutta: I think there has to be a recalibration of how we value labor and which labor is valuable and how we reward that labor, such that those individuals that perform those essential operations are sufficiently resourced and rewarded and remunerated, that they will have the time and capacity to participate in this type of salvage work or renovation work of our social infrastructure, whether it’s for cities or work or health or education or any of those.
Bianca: Yeah. Because I think like the university is something that I don’t know if enough people understand the dynamics of what it means to work in a university. It’s something I didn’t have any real insight into until the last maybe five/six years. Knowing scholars, knowing people who are deans. It’s like, “Okay. What does that look like in the daily life of this role?” I think for me, I was always assuming that there was so much opportunity for this public interest work to happen through universities.
Bianca: Then you peel back some layers and you’re like, “Wow, everybody’s at capacity, just hanging on in an already pretty wild political economy of trouble, which does not honor the implementation of some previous knowledge.” I think universities are really always about novelty. Sometimes I look at people’s work, I’m like, “Wow, you’re constantly rewarded for being the next thing. Having the next term or the next whatever.” I hope if any of this is giving you pause and you want to challenge it, I’d love for you to do so because what-
Jutta: Yeah. I would love to challenge that.
Bianca: No. Good. Good. Good.
Jutta: I think the universities are created to resist change. Yes, it is the next incremental add-on within a confined discipline, but if you stray from that trajectory and you don’t build upon the peer structure or the peer hierarchy, then it has to be backward compatible. It cannot be a complete departure or a completely new view. It’s very, very resistant to that. It’s structured in such a way that it doesn’t allow for anything that is a departure from what comes before. It builds incrementally and it’s very reductionist and very fragmented and siloed.
Bianca: Yeah. Well, institutionally, but in terms of how we might see, we being someone from outside the university, see a scholar’s work and it’s like, “Okay. I’ve got to write another book or I’ve got to say another thing, or I’ve got to publish, publish, publish, publish, publish.” Right?
Jutta: Right. Yeah. The publish and perish.
Bianca: What I was thinking about was with the university as an example, what I’ve learned through these years is like, “Wow, there’s a lot of work that goes into having to do this administrative work of just how the university functions and then all the research work.” So when I think about what it would mean to go to university and be like, “Hey, let’s design your big blue button instance so that you’re in charge of your classroom. It’s not Zoom that you’re just getting handed.” How many professors will be like, “Sweet, sign me up. I’ve got so much time to do that.”
Bianca: It would probably be very few, right? I’m trying to run through where this problem and the example I’m sharing is because of the same thing. Maybe people within even the housing administration at a university could be part of a creative solution to addressing some of the demand problems in a city with homelessness. I don’t know. I don’t know what that looks like, but I know there’s that. You know?
Jutta: Yeah. No. There’s definitely.
Jutta: Yeah. I think there is the capacity to release some of that energy from … If you think of the salvageable labor within a university or within education in general, we engage students and faculty in these disposable assignments, these useless exercises that end up only being seen by the professor and the student where every student redundantly repeats this useless exercise of the scores, the purposes of assessment, and as evidence that they’ve learned something.
Jutta: If we took that energy and devoted it, and these creative minds to actually look at real world relevant problems that are going to result in something that is useful to the community and to the problems that we’re currently facing. Yes. I think there’s a ton of potential there, but it requires a rethinking of what is assessment? How do we assess? How do students provide evidence of learning? What is the review process that goes into proposing an area of study?
Jutta: All of those things, but you’re right. There, there is. If we could salvage that thinking capacity, that energy source, it would be amazing. There’s a ton of potential there.
Bianca: I think about that with … It’s good to hear you say that because when I think of one of the most latent underused sources of power right now, it’s public sector unions in terms of putting different pressure on how technology and policy plays out, because it could influence almost every type of work, right? If you look at a city and you look at who is unionized workers within X, Y, Z space? You’re going to find multiple places where this touches on elements that relate to planning and housing and the operations of the city.
Bianca: Who is the leadership that’s going to pull that off? That’s what I haven’t seen. I haven’t seen that leadership within the public service. I haven’t seen that leadership at the city level. It requires someone to be incentivized. I think that goes back to your points around what’s measured and what’s success look like, right? If there’s no incentive to take that creative work on, you’re not going to do it.
Bianca: Sure. You can have a few like, “Wow, lucky us, somebody’s really excited about this thing.” But you can’t build a society on that kind of labor. It’s a bad approach. I also think that the fear that comes when you’re trying something new and I think about that with ethics and research, for example, and technology and data. Putting students or people who aren’t really familiar with some of the contexts into them to work on things.
Bianca: I also think that brings us back to one of our fundamental problems right now, is being in good relations with each other. How do you make sure that you set people up for really inefficient tracks of just relationship development so you can actually be helpful? Because the amount of time you have to spend to actually get situated in a space properly to be helpful and not to be harmful, even though you meant well, we don’t have a lot of capacity for that.
Bianca: I think in planning, one of the … To bring us to some of the discussions of housing and homelessness again, and urban planning processes, and then bringing it over to reconciliation and being in right relations with issues related to land in place, there’s this formality of duty to consult through the crown. Like if you’re thinking with different Indigenous peoples or Treaty First Nations, and then you see a planner who knows that that’s a thing, and then freezes up at the idea of like, “Well, maybe we should just be talking to people here.”
Bianca: Like, “Let’s go understand what’s going on here. Let’s go understand what the history of the community is. Let’s go understand what the status … Let’s talk in ways that are informal and that are also like learning.” That’s the opposite of what the supposed steps you’re supposed to take are. I think it just goes back to this protocol, almost shoving you in the wrong direction, rather than these informal relationships that need to be had to develop the kind of trust where you can help someone.
Bianca: You can’t just appear in a place. You know this through all the processes that are followed for ethical design obviously better than I do. I just say on a macro level, I don’t ever see that time set aside in process to just be inefficient and to become in relationship with people that you want to work with in some way. I think that is a really-
Jutta: Yeah. Then the loss.
Bianca: … really bad thing right now in the moment we’re in. It’s like, you can feel it so much right now that there’s a frozenness to engaging with people because you’re not really sure how you’re even supposed to do it.
Jutta: Yeah. There are so many things there that you’ve triggered. I mean, the one thing when you’re talking about ethics, the ethics and research committees assume that research means a objective researcher and a subject that is being researched, a passive subject that’s being researched and this notion of objectivity. I mean, that needs to be deconstructed. Because that doesn’t allow for co-design or this idea that the lived experiences, in fact, the area of expertise it isn’t the academic, or that is the researcher, that is the expert.
Jutta: We need to flip that relationship. I think regulations and laws are largely there because we’re not doing what’s good for us. I mean, they’re there to some extent to formalize and to impose things that if we really thought about it, we would collectively do not … Without the regulations that are there. They, to some extent, become this constraining thing that actually is far too blunt an instrument and not capable of the necessary organic growth or responsiveness that we need.
Jutta: They’re punishment for not having done things that we should be doing just out of enlightened self-interest. I think one of the areas when I’ve engaged students in problem or project-based learning, one of the first things that we need to deconstruct is this notion of who is the expert and who is not the expert. What is the expertise of value? How do you gain trust? Who is in control? Who does the problem framing? How do we make decisions?
Jutta: Yes. The first step is very much establishing that relationship and taking the time to establish the relationship. The other barrier with an academia are the timeframes. A course takes so much time, a degree takes so much time. It’s chopped into these little things, which don’t leave any room for the natural progression of that type of trust-building or problem solving or knowledge gathering so that you actually have some sense of the complexity of what you’re dealing with.
Arezoo: Thanks for listening to this ongoing conversation. We will return for the third and last part of this discussion with a question about hybrid life during the COVID Pandemic and post-COVID time.
Arezoo: It was episode 17 of Quantization, Salvage or Demolish.
Arezoo: We want to thank Bianca and Jutta for being part of this conversation. Please share your comments with us; check our website Quantization.ca for more episodes and full transcripts, and don’t forget to listen to the third part of this conversation.
Arezoo: Marshall Bureau composed all tracks in this episode.