Q & A with Drexel's Dr. Mimi Sheller

Dr. Mimi Sheller

Throughout her career, sociology professor Dr. Mimi Sheller has studied different kinds of mobility in public life. She studies how people move, how mobile communication changes how people move, and how new systems of mobility also create immobility. It’s no wonder she’s designed the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy (mCenter) to cross boundaries within disciplines and within Drexel. As the founding director of the mCenter, she works across the University and across nations, studying mobile art one day and the use of mobile technologies in post-disaster recovery the next.

This spring term, Sheller will teach the “Neighborhood Narratives” course with adjunct professor Hana Iverson. It’s a course that last summer teamed students with neighborhood residents to produce Augmented Avenue, a mobile art project as part of the LOOK! on Lancaster Avenue initiative to restore West Philadelphia's Lancaster Avenue Corridor.

In January, she traveled to Tokyo for the World Bank to work with an international team of experts on lessons from the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami for disaster preparedness planning.

Sheller became one of the vanguards of mobilities research while a faculty member of England’s Lancaster University, where she and colleague John Urry founded the Centre for Mobilities Research. Their 2004 Alternative Mobility Futures conference helped introduce the idea of a new field around the study of mobilities. Sheller and Urry also founded the journal Mobilities, now in its seventh year.

Drexel Quarterly spoke with Sheller about her journey to Drexel and her recent work.

How did you find yourself, as a sociologist, involved in the new field of mobilities research?

My early work as a sociologist was as a specialist in the Caribbean region studying 19th-century democratization. That got me interested in the idea of the public sphere and public communication—how populations come together as citizens, how enslaved people became citizens after slavery ended, and how they participated in civic life.

My emphasis on 19th-century life in slavery societies led me to contemporary “mobile” publics. I started doing research on current issues concerning public spaces, citizenship and participation, and I could see that new technologies of communication were reshaping how we enter public space, how we participate, how we connect with other people both locally and more distantly. Unequal access to mobility is a crucial concern, ranging from the forced mobility of the slave trade, to the desegregation of public transport by the Civil Rights Movement, and today’s concerns over the digital divide.

What brought you to Drexel?

After working in mobilities at Lancaster University, I came back to Philadelphia, where I’m from originally, for a visiting position at Swarthmore College in the sociology and anthropology department. Swarthmore is fabulous, but it’s a liberal arts college, and I wanted the synergy of a big research university like Drexel.

I also had this idea of bringing mobilities research, which was really taking off in Europe, into a U.S. academic context, where it wasn’t quite recognized yet.

Drexel had a very open-minded and forward-looking interest in interdisciplinary fields that could draw together the different colleges and schools of Drexel. Mobilities research intersects with engineering around infrastructure and sustainability, with the iSchool around issues of information technology, with the College of Arts and Science with the interest in social issues, with Westphal and issues of design interfaces, and with the School of Public Health around health and access concerns. I saw how it could help build those bridges within Drexel and also bring valuable connections to existing international contacts and networks outside of the U.S.

Who are you working with?

I recently worked on a very exciting project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) on post-earthquake Haiti with colleagues in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering: Franco Montalto, Patrick Gurian, Michael Piasecki and Jen Britton of the Drexel Engineering Cities Initiative. It was a project on participatory engineering—how local knowledge could be mobilized in the post-earthquake situation to work with people there on their water and sanitation needs. There is a real movement in engineering to involve communities in infrastructure decisions, which connects engineering to social science. We are now collaborating on further funding applications on green infrastructure, water and sustainability and climate change.

I’m also planning a collaboration with Youngmoo Kim, director of the Music and Entertainment Technology Laboratory in the College of Engineering. We’re hosting a symposium on inventor and innovator Buckminster Fuller on April 27, to help kick off a city-wide project to host a whole series of events in 2013-14 on Fuller’s activities in Philadelphia.

I’m working with Anthony Grubesic from the iSchool on a project on aeromobility, including issues around who has access to air travel. I’m also interested in the emergence of “Smart Cities” and “eco-cities” with embedded sensors, open data systems and more community participation in planning and policy, including around mobility. Mobile health is another exciting emerging field.

Is that how you became involved with the World Bank in addressing disaster preparedness?

After we did the project in Haiti, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) invited us to a workshop they had organized on behalf of the NSF to review all of the teams that had worked in post-earthquake Haiti. They asked me to co-chair the meeting in October 2010, about nine months after the earthquake itself. I served as co-chaired and helped write the report on emerging research needs that came out of that workshop.

This year the World Bank invited the EERI to bring a team of international experts to Tokyo to work with a Japanese team on lessons learned from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Specifically, the World Bank wanted lessons for developing countries. They invest a lot of program funding in development projects, and they realized that development needs to take disaster preparedness into account, especially in these days of climate change and severe weather events. Large-scale development projects can be impacted by disaster, and countries can use development planning and funding to help prepare for floods and hurricanes and tsunamis and droughts—whatever disaster might strike.

A team of 12 of us—four from the U.S., including myself—went to Tokyo and had an amazing set of sessions with representatives from the World Bank, the Japanese government, and Japanese NGOs that had been involved in disaster response. They presented a lot of information on what they had learned, and we advised them on translating that into something useful for developing countries.

We’re going to meet in early May in Washington, D.C., to look at their revised report. The final version will be presented at the World Bank/International Monetary Fund (IMF) annual meeting in Japan in October. At that meeting the report will go out to all the member states of the IMF and the World Bank so that they incorporate these lessons into future development.

You just came back from Los Angeles for a very different project. Could you tell us about that?

The field of mobilities studies is very flexible so that I can bring it back into all sorts of directions. I was in Los Angeles in February curating a major exhibition on mobilities in art. It’s another new field that I never expected to work on, but it’s really beginning to take off.

The College Arts Association conference is one of the largest conferences for art curators, art historians and art professionals. I had worked with Hana Iverson on the Augmented Avenue Project, and she initially had this idea of us doing a panel together on mobile art. We put out a call, and we got so many great submissions we planned two panels. Then we decided: why don’t we do an exhibition while we’re at it?

We got access to a wonderful gallery at UCLA at the Broad Art Center. The exhibition we created, LA Re.Play, included digital work, video computer documentation and augmented reality pieces (www.lareplay.net). They were placed around UCLA, the LA Convention Center and all around Los Angeles. It had a big impact at the conference because the leading writers in the field came to our sessions and exhibit. We hope to bring the show to Philadelphia next year if we can get exhibition funding to produce it on an even bigger scale.

How can someone get more involved at the mCenter?

The mCenter is open to collaboration in a variety of ways. Students take my courses on mobilities usually as Special Subjects in Sociology or Communication. We sponsor a Mobility Visiting Speaker Series, which is open to the public, and I always welcome suggestions for speakers to invite. In the fall, for example, we co-sponsored the MP3 experiment by Charlie Todd, who got hundreds of students to participate in a “flash mob” experience. Just follow our blog at mCenterDrexel.wordpress.com, mCenter @ Drexel on Facebook, or mCenterDrexel on Twitter, to get involved.

We also sponsor occasional conferences or symposia that the Drexel community can attend, which many did for our Mobilities in Motion conference last year. I also invite graduate students and researchers to join the Pan-American Mobilities Network, which I co-founded. We expect to co-host the 2014 conference of the International Association for the History of Traffic, Transport and Mobility (T2M) with the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C., and would welcome the Drexel community to attend.

--Kelly Andrews