In the spotlight: Mariana Fried

MarianaMariana Fried has started with her PhD research in September 2021 at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, in which she studies discourses on smartness and digitalization in the city from the perspective of workers. Her background is in Media Studies. It was during her work as a research assistant at the Centre for BOLD Cities in 2019 when she first got acquainted with the topic of urban digitalization and smart cities.

Can you tell us more about your academic background and expertise?

I come from a media and communications background. My Bachelors was in PR, in Argentina. Then I first did a Master in Media, Culture and Society at the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) and then a research master in Sociology of Media, Culture and Arts at the EUR. Last September (2021) I started my PhD at the department of media and communication, supervised by Prof. dr. Susanne Janssen, Dr. Isabel Awad and  Dr. Jiska Engelbert (Strategic director of the Centre for BOLD Cities), after receiving a PhD in the Humanities grant from the NWO. My research focusses on discourses on digitalization in the city, so it is a bit broader than just smart cities, and specifically on how actors, individuals, working in the so-called smart city, talk about these topics and therefore may reproduce it in different ways and transform the notion. Initially I am interested in those workers who are supposed to produce and come up with digital solutions for the smart city. For example, employees at municipalities, entrepreneurs, tech-incubators staff, platform workers, and so on. Not only what they say and do as an institution, but mostly in what the people behind these institutions, that work in these spaces, actually do with the smart or digital city discourse. What motivates them to use it in certain ways? How do they generally talk about the role that digital technology has on the city where they live and work? I  think that it is important to take actors and people seriously instead of only focusing on what ‘the media’ or ‘the municipality’ or ‘big tech companies’ say and do. The people within these spaces can develop their own motivations, strategies and ways of using and working with these concepts and discourses for purposes that can be as varied as people are.

How did you get affiliated with the Centre for BOLD Cities?

After I finished my first master, I worked as a research assistant on a project with Jiska Engelbert. During this time, I  did a literature review and collected data about smart city award competitions and consortia in Europe. This was the first time that I got acquainted with literature on smart city and smart city discourses. Then during my research master, I continued doing some projects on this topic and finally decided that I wanted to add this particular focus on the workers behind the smart city, or digital workers. This was an aspect that I found hadn’t been paid so much attention to in the literature. Besides my supervisors, I received useful advice from other experts in the field when planning and designing my PhD proposal, including Prof. dr. Liesbet van Zoonen from BOLD. This is all quite recent, so I am still pretty new to the Centre, but I look forward to leverage on the broad network that the centre has to offer with the researchers that all work in similar topics from a different disciplinary approach. I think that these interdisciplinary perspectives could be helpful.

In topics like platform work and smart cities, we should try to learn more from each other's approaches and disciplines.

Why do you think that an interdisciplinary approach is valuable for a topic such as smart and digital cities?

It is important because many of the ways in which people or organizations try to make a city ‘smart’ are themselves interdisciplinary. There are people with a background in law working on building the so-called smart city, people with a background in engineering, a lot of people with a background in marketing, PR, and communications building ‘the smart city’. So how can we understand a phenomenon in which so many different actors and approaches are taking part if we don’t ourselves look into all these different aspects of it? Media, marketing, and communication being part of it, the experiences of individuals and workers also being part of it (not only the sensors and the data or the policies). We can’t fully understand a phenomenon like this unless we talk with each other and learn from each other, beyond the boundaries of each discipline. Together with Prof. dr. Claartje ter Hoeven (board member of BOLD) we had a conversation about this, some months ago. We realized that many people at the university are doing research on platform labor from different academic disciplines and perspectives. I, for example, look at platform workers, such as delivery riders, as actors that can have their own interpretations of the role of ‘the digital’ in the city. Other colleagues focus more on their work conditions, their sense of belonging and community, etc. We realized how useful it could be in terms of interdisciplinarity, if we could all get to know each other’s work and learn from each other. By now we have had 3 or 4 meetings with researchers from a lot of different faculties which, to me, really shows that within topics like platform work and smart cities, we should try to learn more from each other’s approaches and disciplines.