“The future is already here–it’s just not very evenly distributed.” –William Gibson, cited in “Finding Futures”

Whether it’s studying citizens’ responses to wind turbine development or public perception of climate change, social scientists working on urban environments are increasingly drawn to questions of how people interpret local environments and how they imagine the future.  It’s one of the reasons why I am always interested in creative new methods to bring together people’s visual and spatial perspectives as well as their words.

Gretchen Gano recently shared a short article, Finding Futures: A Spatio-Visual Experiment In Participatory Engagement, by her team of science and technology studies scholars from Arizona State University and the European Commission. The Finding Futures project was an experiment in participatory visual research–with a focus on understanding how different participants encounter the urban environment as they walk through it.  The project was organized as part of a workshop in Lisbon, Portugal on “Science in a Digital Society,” with a focus on public participation in public planning and decision-making, especially in relation to new technologies.

The organizers of the FindingFutures pilot project asked a group of workshop participants to come along on a two-hour walking tour of the neighborhood near the conference venue and to take digital photos of signs of the past, present, and future as they walked along.  At the end of the walk, participants uploaded and tagged their photos with captions on Flickr, and the organizers put together an installation space with the images and captions projected onto several walls.  The installation space itself became an area where workshop-goers discussed the images and reflected on the cityscape.

The organizers were struck by how much the photographers focused on quotidian details, rather than the stunning views of the Tejo River and the bright, tile-clad building facades that bring tourists to Lisbon.  Participants themselves spoke of how the act of picture-taking made them pay attention to the city’s environment in a new way.  These reflections ring true with many of the Photovoice projects I have organized and read about in the past few years.  What excites me about the Finding Futures project is how it brings together Photovoice methods and a qualitative spatial approach–like Taplin, Scheld, and Low’s “transect walks” with urban park visitors or Sarah Pink’s phenomenological “urban tours.”

As an anthropologist, I’d like to have seen the article does not go deep into the specific local context of Lisbon because it seems quite relevant to the question of imagining the future of Portugal’s capital city and possible trajectories for urban development.  The Finding Futures tour was held in the Alcantara district, a working-class neighborhood that has been transformed in the past twenty years by the decline of traditional industries and shipping, as well as by efforts to jump-start the “creative economy” through gentrification, high-tech incubators, and the construction of a waterfront entertainment district.  Most likely, the workshop participants who went on the walking tour were unaware of this history, but using the Finding Futures approach with community members could be a fruitful way to elicit reflections on the changing urban landscape, and also to create a space for public dialogue and debate within the research process.  Cool!

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