How incumbency shapes public engagement

Title: Programming Engagement in a Smart City Robot Competition. How incumbency shapes public engagement

Authors: Carlos Cuevas-Garcia, Cian O’Donovan

Presented at: 4S Annual Meeting 2021. 8th October 2021

Session: Making Science in Public


In the last two decades, robotics competitions have become one of the most iconic events of interaction between robots, students, specialists, lay audiences, and the physical environment. Robotics competitions aim to facilitate open innovation, to put the skills of the programmers and the reliability of robotic platforms to test, and to foster education, team development, and public engagement. However, competitions are not neutral events but are rather co-produced together with the values and visions, practices, assumptions, and interests of their organizers. In this paper, we examine a number of robot competitions supported by the European Commission that we attended during 2018 and 2019. Two of these competitions took place in the intimate settings of robotics laboratories in Bristol, UK, and Oldenburg, Germany. The third competition, by contrast, took place in a shopping mall in Milton Keynes, UK, and hosted a larger and more diverse audience. We pay particular attention to the physical and semiotic infrastructures — settings, devices, scenarios, narratives — that gave shape to these competitions and analyze how these framed, enabled and restricted the ways in which robots interacted with their programmers and with diverse — engaged and disengaged — publics. We analyse our observations by drawing on the concepts of care and control, and develop the notions of “bypassing” and “embracing” engagement.

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