Dr. Chandra Ward describes her approach to community engagement as a “two-way street,” which is appropriate given how much of her work with UTC’s Center for Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP) focuses on mobility and transportation. Chandra has recently taken on the critical role of Director of Community Engagement for CUIP, which further fuses her extensive expertise in urban sociology with groundbreaking research on smart city projects in Chattanooga. Through her work, she aims to build durable strong relationships with community leaders and stakeholders, ensuring that technological advancements are not merely innovative but developed in ways that are equitable, beneficial, and responsive to community needs.
Last month, the University announced that your position within CUIP would be expanding. What does your role look like now?
This is a dedicated position to community engagement. Oftentimes, I’m the sole social scientist on these projects, and I did not necessarily have the resources to really do the level of communication and outreach that I envisioned. Mina [Sartipi] worked to make this position happen so that we can dedicate more resources to engagement more consistently. It’s very much in lockstep with the larger vision of CUIP and the vision of UTC.
How did you first become acquainted with the CUIP?
I arrived at [UTC] six years ago. I had accepted a job here as Assistant Professor of Sociology. At the time, I assumed that I would continue doing the work that I did as a PhD student, which largely centered around Public Housing and Urban Development. During the fall of 2017, Mina [Sartipi] was having some brownbag talks about smart cities, and I really was not sure what a smart city was! I felt, as an urbanist, that I should so I attended these sessions.
At one point, I spoke up and asked, “How can a city truly be ‘smart’ if it is not adequately addressing long standing urban issues that have been in existence for quite some time?” After that, she came up to me and introduced herself and said, “We need people like you on some of the projects that we’re working on.” The rest is history [laughs]
Mina and I have been working together ever since on a variety of grants and grant funded projects. My research agenda, if you will, is to focus on smart cities, but specifically leveraging technology to address long standing social issues. I’m skeptical of the ways that technology can actually create greater fissures in our society by worsening inequalities. I’m focused on not only the impact of technologies, but everything that happens prior to their implementation, including how we engage the community so that we’re at not creating technology for the sake of technology’s sake, but we’re creating something that the community wants – something that will benefit the entire community and not just the upper echelon. I’m primarily focused on making sure that when engineers are thinking about technology, they’re not just looking at it from the tech side, but that they’re thinking how communities might respond to something like predictive policing, for example, or gunshot detection. Someone may believe that everybody will love this but society is complex – there are many layers. As we’re learning with artificial intelligence and facial recognition, they are created by people who import their biases into the technology, and they don’t even know it. We think of technology as existing in an inherently neutral space, but it does not because it is created within the society that already exists. It will likely replicate the different types of societal patterns that you currently exist in a society.
What does genuine and productive community engagement tactically look like in a city like Chattanooga?
To me, it looks like creating relationships: long-term, sustainable relationships. What I do not want to do is just extract data from a community and when the grant dollars have run out, you’re done and never heard from again. As a part of [CUIP], I want to be a point person that the community can look to for things such as town halls, workshops, and focus groups where you’re actually showing people the technology and asking them, “What do you think of this?” That’s how we get feedback on what members of the community think about a particular type of technology, or the extent to which they are comfortable with things like automation.
I look to the community and stakeholders and thought leaders to inform me about the best way to engage with their particular community because, going back to the complexities of our society, there’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all sort of prescription for engaging the community. It will be a very iterative two-way street, where I’m learning from leaders in the community about how to best reach the particular population that they represent.
What’s the best case scenario for CUIP’s work as it relates to peoples’ real-world concerns? Conversely, what concerns do you have about this work’s implications?
People have valid concerns; I have concerns. We can be thinking more strategically about the human component of technology. We do need social scientists, and behavioral scientists working on these issues, because it has great social implications.
At the same time, I’ve been alive long enough to remember when I had peers who just refused to get a cell phone [laughs] Now, it’s hard to find someone without a cell phone. You have to have one in order to survive in the world that we live in. I’d be interested in finding out the folks who were resistant at the time – how do they feel now?
Right now, we’re seeing concerns regarding the quick development of AI. We need more diversity of minds at the table to be able to temper the impacts of the technology – or at least redirect the impacts towards the positive in order to stave off some of the negative so that we can coexist in an increasingly technological world.
What does it mean to you to describe yourself as an “urbanist”? When and how and why that term sort of came into your personal lexicon?
Simply put, an urbanist is someone for whom the unit of analysis in social research is the urban landscape. That can actually be multiple disciplines: geography, civil engineering, urban sociology, and so forth. Towards the end of my path to getting my PhD, which overlaps with me starting at UTC, I begin to see myself as as an urbanist, because I do engage with multiple disciplines. I had a geographer on my dissertation committee, for instance, and I’m very interested in feminist geography; I include that in my urban sociology classes, as well as urban planning.
I’m not an urban planner myself, but I am interested in space, and the usage of space to shape social interactions, and that sits on the cusp of all these different disciplines. I guess it’s more of a broad umbrella under which multiple disciplines fall under – but they’re all fascinating.