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University of Michigan School of Information


Regional Experiments for the Future of Work in America

Urban centers in rural regions of the American Midwest have begun experiment with a new wave of computer-based economic development tackling complex challenges for the future of work in the 21st century. Smart zones, smart cities, tech entrepreneurship, and data science initiatives have sprung up in these regions. The goal of these initiatives is to build a "regional advantage" for the American Midwest, i.e. prototyping novel approaches in computing in order to broaden citizen participation in regional economic development. Prior research shows that while such experimentation can help mobilize people in times of heightened uncertainty and create actionability, there is also a risk that they disadvantage large populations and exacerbate existing class divides. This research project examines both the challenges and opportunities of such regional experimentation and conduct sociotechnical interventions with community stakeholders to advance their commitments to broaden participation. Our particular focus will be on a new line of regional experiments with computer-based economic development in the American Midwest, rooted in collaborations between government, industry, and universities to drive their traditions of manufacturing excellence into the next generation. Michigan and Indiana constitute unique regions to study such regional experiments as they leverage infrastructures of production to reclaim what they have lost: their position as cutting-edge production hubs. Drawing from the PI's long-term experience conducting such regional and multi-site engagements, the project will include in-depth ethnographic research and stakeholder-driven engagements with the following two groups: 1) those who are at the forefront of conceiving, designing and implementing techno-urban experiments of fab cities, IoT cities, and smart zones and 2) underserved and excluded populations, i.e. those who might be most immediately affected by these techno-urban experiments in terms of implications for their immediate work but have little recourse of action.

Intellectual Merit: Research outcomes include the identification of transferable practices, policies, and frameworks. These will contribute actionable tactics on how to pursue innovation agendas in contemporary economic contexts characterized by the mobility of information, capital, and talent; emerging forms of work; and contemporary sociotechnical infrastructures. It will also contribute methods to help researchers better understand stakeholder needs at the regional scale, with a particular focus on populations that have traditionally been underserved. The research will inform the development of sociotechnical interventions supporting bottom-up innovation procedures and emergent outcomes. Such implications will be informed by cutting edge research on data collection and analysis techniques. The project's emphasis on marginalized or excluded stakeholders will offer insights on how to ensure such systems maximize stakeholder agency at all stages of the process.

Broader Impacts: This project will augment existing efforts to contribute to a dynamic creative economy. This project seeks to avoid the fallacy of the techno-fix (Sims 2017). Instead, we emphasize community, dialogue, and mutual care--supported and augmented through emerging technological capabilities. Specifically, this research will build self-efficacy through the clarification of an urban area's own regional advantage. The project will do so through 1) skill building, including building skills with new technologies (e.g., digital fabrication); 2) developing community's capacities to act in a collective way, supporting democracy and self-determination; 3) regional knowledge production and dissemination, including successful community models, actions, and communication tactics; and 4) including diverse actors in spite of their different histories, legacies, aspirations, and concerns, that is, fostering a sense that we are all in this together. Beyond the sites in Indiana and Michigan, this research will inform similar efforts across the United States to conduct regional experiments, particularly those in the Midwest, Appalachia, and the South, whose rural-urban and post-industrial economies have much in common.

Principal Investigator: Silvia Lindtner 

Co-investigators: Tawanna Dillahunt, Shaowen Bardzell (IU), Jeffrey Bardzell (IU)

GSRA: Jonathan Riley

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The amount of the award is $1,200,000 for the project period. The grant is funded by the National Science Foundation, IIS - CHS (Cyber-Human Systems).